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Just Let the Kids Play and Have Fun

How parents, coaches, and other adults spoil the youth sports experience.


  • Popularization and misuse of "deliberate practice" and the "10,000-Hour Rule" hampers the youth sports experience.
  • Coaches and parents overburden youth sports participants with unreasonable time commitments and too many overlapping activities.
  • Specialized commitment to a sport or other extracurricular activity is a decision to be made by the young person, not an adult.
  • Research is clear that sports participants are rarely prepared to specialize in a sport until the age of 14, at the earliest.

Troubled parents approached, fearing their son’s inability to choose a sport to specialise in spelled indecisive, lifelong failure. They finally shared the young man’s age—nine.

“Are you kidding me?!?” I silently thought. Sadly, they were not. It was everything I could do to mask my shock and dismay.

How did these parents, and others encountered, arrive at such irrationality? Much originates from the popularisation and bastardisation of research studying elite performers in sport and other high-skilled endeavours.

From Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book (2008) The Outliers: The story of success:

“The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: Ten thousand hours.”

The "10,000-Hour Rule,” as Gladwell calls it, is based on the research of Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer (1993) that explored what goes into the making of elite musicians, athletes, and other high-skilled performers.

Ericsson’s study found that top-level performers are not born with elite skill, they train for it. Performance expertise, according to the research, develops from 10,000 hours of intensely focused “deliberate practice” spread out over a minimum of ten years.

While the concept of deliberate practice is invaluable to our understanding of expert skill acquisition, the misunderstanding and abuse of deliberate practice, and the 10,000-hour rule, have distorted expectations for young people, ruining their sport/performance experience.

What is Deliberate Practice?

Summarising research conducted by Ericsson, et al., and others, deliberate practice is a highly intensive, purposeful activity requiring immediate feedback and correction by the performer. The person engaged in deliberate practice seeks improvement and understands the specific purpose of each drill/exercise performed, allowing for the absorption of immediate feedback from an instructor/coach, and making the necessary adjustments. The performer is also able to self-evaluate during solitary practice and make appropriate changes without coach feedback.

Critique from a coach and making changes isn’t always easy or enjoyable, and neither is deliberate practice, according to Ericsson and his colleagues. The purpose of deliberate practice isn’t fun or entertainment, it's motivated by a relentless pursuit of improvement.

As Michael Jordan told Tiger Woods, “No matter how good they say you are, always keep working at your game.”

Due to the intense nature of deliberate practice, sessions can lose effectiveness if they are too long, according to research. Such activity longer than an hour can result in diminished returns, exhaustion, and eventual burnout. Team and group practices differ in many ways and are less intense than deliberate practice and, thus, can go longer.

Not every athlete/performer is cut out, or developmentally ready, for the intensity of deliberate practice.

10,000-Hour Rule Problems

Issues with the “10,000-Hour Rule” are not from the rule itself, but rather from overzealous coaches, instructors, parents, and other adults shoving way too much practice down young people’s throats in their quest to squeeze in 10,000 hours to produce elite athletes, musicians, dancers, etc.

Youth programs make unrealistic promises of college scholarships to lure naïve parents, convinced the program will turn their child into the next LeBron James, Serena Williams, Jennifer Lawrence, or Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Many youth organizations demand year-round commitment and require multiple weekly practice and conditioning sessions. Parents signing their pre-adolescents up for multiple, overlapping activities add to the problem. Kids are plunged into a relentless, daily routine of racing from one activity to another with little regard for the resultant physical, mental, and emotional strain, leading to stressed-out participants.

All that limits time for family, school, social, personal, and other important dimensions of kids’ lives. Three or four evening practices per week results in rushed, poorly done homework and inadequate sleep. Because of the stress induced by the above, many kids quit previously enjoyed activities.

Time Does Not Mean Quality

Another problem created by misguided adults is equating more practice time with quality training. Deliberate practice requires close supervision, immediate feedback, and the performer’s understanding of what they are doing. Practice without those key ingredients—no matter how long—limits effectiveness.

“Youth baseball programs try to fit as many players as they can into the limited indoor space they have (during winter practices), but only have a couple of coaches to lead drills,” said Jon Sharp in an interview for this article. He is a 21-year-old varsity baseball player at Allegheny College.

“There is no way for every player to get individualised coaching,” Sharp continued. “The crowded space, lack of quality training, and overly lengthy practices cause kids to dislike baseball because they get nothing out of it. They just go do the same thing for months without ever receiving the expert coaching these travel teams promise.”

Long-Term Consequences

According to research, 70 percent of children drop out of sports before the age of 13 because they are not having fun, partially due to the forced, time-consuming, unbalanced life imposed by adults.

“I have met plenty of athletes during my time at training sessions that would rather have been anywhere else and were only there because their parents made them,” lamented Sharp. “Leading up to a summer baseball season, programs set up multiple weekly training sessions five or six months before the start of a season for players as young as ten. Young players forced to attend these sessions for months is a recipe for burnout because training becomes more of a weekly chore. Kids are no longer playing for a love of the game.”

Adults have turned fun and joy into a bore, snore, and chore.

What’s to be Done?

First, remember that specialising in one sport and committing to intense deliberate practice is a decision to be made by the young person, not a parent or coach. Children are rarely ready to commit to specialised training before the age of 14, according to Cote, Baker, and Abernathy (2003).

Pre-teens need to taste-test various sports and other activities and just have fun. They should engage in what Cote, et al. defined as “free play” and “deliberate play.” Free play means playing with minimal structure. Deliberate play involves teams and games that follow the rules of the sport and are structured by kids or adults. Child-structured endeavours include time on the playground, recess, and backyard pick-up games. Adult-structured activities include organized, coached teams, without overdone team training and competitive intensity.

Experiencing multiple sports, one season at a time, allows children to discover for themselves the activities they enjoy most and at which they excel. That combination can lead to their decision to specialise in one sport and immerse themselves in the intense time and training involved.

Children should be included in the decision to participate in an activity. Exploring with them the time commitment involved, and the experience and qualifications of the adults involved, are critical to the decision-making process. Be wary of programs demanding too many weekly practice and training sessions and out-of-season commitments. Refrain from committing to overlapping sports/activities, resulting in tumultuous running around, conflicts, and stress.

A final recommendation: Children’s lives belong to them, not to the whims and desires of parents, coaches, and other adults. Keeping that in mind can ensure the child’s enjoyment of an activity and optimise their ultimate achievement.


Cote, J., Baker, J., & Abernathy, B. From play to practice: A developmental framework for the acquisition of expertise in team sports. In J.L. Starkes, & K.A. Ericsson (Eds.), Expert performance in sports: Advances in research and sports expertise (pp. 89-113). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Press.

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Back Bay Books.

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