Baumgardner: 'I love watching you play' may be key to keeping kids in sports

Jim and Susan (not their real names) were very purposeful in their decision to let their 6-year-old son play baseball. Jonathan seemed to enjoy the game and actually played well enough that he was invited to play on an all-star team.

"The regular season ended on a Saturday, and all-star practice began on Mother's Day," says Jim. "They practiced every day that week with their first game on Friday. Between Friday and Tuesday, the team played nine games. The general atmosphere was 'win at all costs.' The coach spent a lot of time yelling at the kids if they missed a play. There was very little positive encouragement when players did something right."

After witnessing this, Jim and Susan began questioning their decision to let their son play.

"I knew things were not good when we showed up to a game and our son said his stomach hurt," Jim says. "I figured it was probably nerves. When we got home, Jonathan went outside and played baseball outside for a couple of hours. That was when we really knew we had a decision to make."

Ultimately, Jim and Susan made the joint decision to pull their son off the team. When they told him about their decision, he actually seemed relieved.

Forty million kids play youth sports. According to a poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports, more than 70 percent of kids who begin a sport before age 8 will not play that sport in middle school.

John O'Sullivan, founder and CEO of the Changing the Game project, says that kids are not becoming better at sports; they are becoming bitter. Michigan State University asked 30,000 kids why they play sports, and they said because it's fun. And while they value winning, it isn't why they show up to play.

O'Sullivan also notes that kids say they quit playing sports because they are tired of being yelled at, there's too much emphasis on winning and they are afraid to make mistakes. When a parent or coach is more concerned about winning than anything, it can totally take the joy out of playing.

"The single most fundamental thing we teach is something I learned from coach Bruce Brown," says O'Sullivan. "You can do your part by starting with five simple words: I love watching you play."

Heath Eslinger, wrestling coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, encourages parents to focus on what is important in the big picture, not just what is important now.

"Improvement in sports happens through repetition," says Eslinger. "If I play a baseball game, I may never touch a baseball. If that is the case, there is no way I can improve. Repetition comes from play, and that is so much more beneficial."

Eslinger believes parents need to let their children walk through organic struggles vs. placing them in supplemental struggles, which are all the extracurricular opportunities. Organic struggle centers on two things: relationships and responsibility. How you treat people and how you take care of responsibilities - these two things will always be around.

Many positives and life lessons can come from playing sports. Before you get too involved though, it's probably a good idea to examine exactly what you want kids to learn from playing the game. Whether you are a coach or a parent, you get to decide what is more important - winning and performance, or making better people of character.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Contact her at