Canadian youth are choosing to hang up their cleats or skates at a younger age partly because they have far too many practices and games, which tire them out and kill their passion for the sport, says a North Vancouver soccer coach.

"If your child is playing more games than an NHL player, you seriously have the balance wrong," said Will Cromack, a girls soccer coach and founder of Play Better, a group that aims to improve behaviour in youth sports.

According to a new study prepared by Vital Signs and the True Sport Foundation, many children are choosing to leave sports by the time they turn 13. 

The study also found that nearly two-thirds of Canadians say that children's sports have become too focused on winning instead of fun and fair play.

Increased pressure, competitiveness

Cromack who coaches ages six to 18  said that finding does not surprise him and he has seen a high level of competition extended to increasingly younger children.  

"Back in the day when I was a young buck we wouldn't see a splitting of teams until probably 12 years old — that elite, competitive level beginning to happen," he said.

"Now it's starting as early as eight."

Cromack said that sports need to be fun and that there has to be balance. He said that many young hockey players for example don't take into account the fact what Wayne Gretzky has said, which is that when hockey season was over he would hang up his skates and pick up a baseball, kick a soccer ball — he'd play another sport.

Saul Miller, a Vancouver-based sport psychologist, also says part of the problem is that young athletes are playing their sport of choice far too often — and it isn't healthy.

No balance, burnout

"In the old days there simply wasn't ice available in the summertime, so kids did other things. They went swimming. They played baseball. They went camping," Miller said.

Today, in hockey particularly, it's endless. There's spring hockey. There's summer hockey. So, I'm telling kids it's really important to take a break, to cross train, to do other forms of physical exercise, to get away from it.

"There has to be balance, there has to be breaks away from the game. "We see the same thing if we're talking about musicians — kids who aspire to perform at the highest level sometimes overtrain. And what happens if  you overtrain is you burn out, and you lose your passion for what it is that you strive for."

Miller said that hockey legends like Bobby Orr have said that youth sports shouldn't be over-structured — children should be allowed to have fun, because there are values that they learn that they can use for the rest of their lives.

"He also goes on to say that if there was as much structure that he's seen now when he was a kid, he would never have become the player that he became, because he played for fun. He played with passion, and passion is something that allows you to sustain things through the difficult, adverse times."

Miller said that it's not all coaches or all parents who are to blame for the increased competition and pressure, but some take it to the extreme, rather than teaching teamwork and a love of the game.

With files from CBC's The Early Edition and B.C. Almanac


To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Sports psychologist says youth athletes need balance to prevent burnout