Youth programs must check their focus

Published on March 12th, 2020

Amid the heightening emphasis on competition, and the pervasive mentality of parents to measure and manipulate, it’s no wonder that youth sports has gone off the rails. For sailing, when youth programming modeled its structure similar to other youth sports in the 1980s, it is also now feeling the ramifications.

In a NY Times report by Dr. Jennifer L. Etnier, a distinguished professor of kinesiology, she discusses how woefully underprepared instructors are contributing to this shockingly high dropout rate among young athletes.

While sailing may be ahead of other sports in regard to youth coach training, sailing is also not a sport like other sports. Sailing is an immensely diverse activity, with only a small percentage of sailors doing it on a race course. This fact got forgotten during the ‘soccerization’ of youth sailing.

If the focus of your youth program is only on training young people to race small dinghies on windward leeward courses, your program might be part of the problem. Here’s Dr. Etnier’s report…


More than 45 million children are engaged in youth sports, but an estimated 70 percent will drop out by the time they are 13 years old. Not 5 percent, not 15 percent, but 70 percent.

This is a critical issue because of the benefits of sport participation. A 2010 Centers for Disease Control study found that physically active youth have better weight control, academic achievement and mental health as well as a decreased risk of heart disease and lower likelihood of diabetes than those who are not.

So why are so many kids dropping out? One of the most pervasive problems is that coaches are doing it wrong.

I have played for, coached with and watched great coaches. At every level, there are capable sports instructors providing positive experiences for our children. The problem is, such coaches are greatly outnumbered by those who don’t seem to know what they are doing. This is true of programs both inside and outside of schools.

The youth sports industry is heavily dependent on the services of volunteers, typically parents or teachers. While these coaches may have wonderful intentions and enthusiasm for the game, that doesn’t mean they have the skills to provide useful instruction.

The National Council for Accreditation of Coaching Education reports that in the United States, approximately four million out of 7.5 million youth and school coaches are volunteers. Fewer than 5 percent of youth sport coaches have relevant training; among middle-school and high school coaches, only 25 percent to 30 percent do.

In my experience, most youth sport organizations and schools offer little in the way of education, feedback, coaching evaluations, mentoring or resources to their coaches, and the only ubiquitous requirement is the completion of a criminal-background check.

These inexperienced coaches often focus on winning rather than learning and development. Full report.

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