C. Ryan Dunn, Travis Dorsch, Michael Q. King, and Kevin Rothlisberger

The Big Idea

The estimates in the United States vary. But anywhere between 24 and 44 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 participate in organized youth sports. The measurement discrepancy is due to the wide-ranging framing of the demographics, geographies, and organizational structures. Let’s just say there is a glut of kids at play in the U.S. today, organizationally speaking.

On the one hand, there is good reason for this popular development. A long line of research verifies the many positive outcomes for youth participating in sport. These include: physical benefits, improved grades, opportunities for leadership, practice in goal-setting, improved self-confidence, and learning how to be a team player.

On the other hand, there are possible negative outcomes as well. Youngsters participating in organized sports can also experience lack of success, serious injuries, burnout, or financial challenges. This last- named financial challenge is creeping into the negative narrative of youth sports. These researchers decided to follow the money.


  • For the most part, the history of youth development by way of sports participation is a positive one.
  • However, more recently this story is showing signs of intuitional fragility.
  • The modern problem is the increasingly apparent necessity of families to make significant financial investments in their children’s sports performance.
  • Even if well intentioned, there appears to be an unintentional consequence of such investing.
  • Much like the behavior of those managing investment portfolios, parents often find themselves expecting a return on investments in youth sports.
  • These parent expectations can have a negative impact on their children’s enjoyment of and commitment to youth sports.
  • In this national cross-sectional survey of 163 families in the United States with children in youth sports, the suspicion was that there is a link between the amount of money parents invest in their children and perceived parental pressure by these children.
  • This study did indeed reinforce the idea that greater levels of family financial investment were associated with higher athlete perceptions of parent pressure to succeed and decreases in children’s enjoyment and commitment.
  • A few practical recommendations were offered to reduce the likelihood that children will feel coerced to play under perceived pressure from otherwise well-intentioned parents.

The Research

This research paper, published in the journal Family Relations (April 2016), is focused on one of the lesser known and potentially negative outcomes of youth sport participation. It deals with complications engendered by well-intentioned parents to allocate ever significant percentages of family resources to support their participating children in youth sports. Previous research shows that U.S. parents allocate between 3% and 12% of their gross (pre-tax) household income to enable their children to participate in organized sports. These costs are not decreasing; quite the opposite, as we are seeing increasing emphasis on elite travel sports teams, ever-more expensive equipment, clinic fees, and private coaching.

The researchers ask: To what extent do parents have an expectation of a return on their financial investment from their own children? Does parent pressure from this financial investment potentially have an impact on children’s enjoyment of and commitment to sport participation?

The research hypotheses

The research literature on parent support in youth sport typically shows a strong positive correlation between parent enthusiasm and youth enjoyment, autonomy, developmental outcomes, and commitment. In other words, these studies show a high correlation between perceived parent support and positive youth sport experiences. So, parents typically do give positive instrumental, informational, and emotional support perceived as welcomed from the children.

But it is also true that one form of instrumental support coming from parents is fiduciary. Using an economic model, the researchers suppose that an investment in one’s children can provoke behavior similar to behaviors in other financial investments. Investor sentiments are typically linked to future behaviors and expected returns. From the children’s side, the risk is a perception of parent pressure.

Research literature defines parent pressure as “directive and controlling parental behaviors designed to prompt athlete responses and outcomes that are important to the parent.” This pressure takes the form of parent dissatisfaction with a child’s performances or discontent with the outcome of contests or careers. Higher levels of parent pressure result in performance anxiety and burnout.

It was hypothesized in this study that much like investors, “parents who reported investing a greater percentage of the family’s pre-tax household income into the youth participation of their children would also be perceived as exhibiting more pressure in the sport domain.” Additionally, “because parent pressure has been inversely associated with youth sport enjoyment and commitment, it is also predicted there will be a negative indirect influence of family financial investment on youth sport enjoyment and commitment.” Directly put, the researcher’s best guess is: the higher the family investment, the greater the perceived pressure; the higher the pressure, the lower the levels of athlete enjoyment and less commitment to continued participation.


The study design was online survey research. They recruited 600 U.S. families representing all 50 states. Response rates typically are about 20% for these studies. In the end, a final sample size of 163 parent-child dyads participated in the study (27.2% response, 42 states). The study was cross-sectional. The sports represented included: American football, basketball, baseball, soccer, track or cross country, volleyball, wrestling, softball, swimming, tennis, cheerleading, golf, gymnastics, and triathlon.

The measures/scales categories included: Family Financial Investment, Perceptions of Parent Pressure, Children’s Sport Enjoyment, Children’s Sport Commitment, and Individual and Family Commitment.

Results and recommendations

The findings from this study demonstrated (with limitations acknowledged) that: “Greater levels of family financial investment were associated with higher athlete perceptions of parent pressure and decreases in children’s enjoyment and commitment.” Crass though it may seem, these researchers were nonetheless led to conclude that “these findings share a stark similarity to that of transient investor behavior and the associated poorer investment portfolio performance.” The perceived “portfolio” pressure reported by the youth participants included such success measures as the need: to score, to win, to be on the starting squad, to get a college scholarship.

The researchers make a few applied recommendations based on these findings.

  • Professionals associated with organized youth sports should make every effort to reduce the financial burden on organized youth sport families.  For example, there could be federal and local government subsidies for sport participation as modeled in Sweden.  In Canada, the federal government provides tax credits for families of youth sport participants.
  • There is an urgent need for the collection of interested and responsible parties (such as administrators, coaches, and parents) to create more developmentally appropriate sport settings for youth.  Especially helpful would be mechanisms to make more sports available, more diversified participation, and less pressure on early specialization.
  • Finally, the elephant in the room needs full exposure: the growing professionalization of youth sports.  If the direction of youth sports is to be a privatization of youth sports, there will be the inevitable exclusion of children in low and middle-income families.
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