Modifying Youth Sports: What Does the Research Tell Us?

November 7, 2018

Written by Jennifer Nalepa

As coaches, we try to help our athletes develop new skills and feel success in sport while still making sure each player is having fun. So how can we make it easier for athletes to learn new skills and feel success? Modify the equipment and rules of the sport to match the developmental stage of the athletes.

Modified Youth Sports

Modified youth sports involve developmentally appropriate equipment, competition, rules, and physical space that taken together increases opportunities for children to learn skills and stay involved in the action (Hill & Green, 2008). Based on a constraints-led approach, modified youth sports change the task related constraints (rules, goals, and equipment) to better match the individuals physical and psychological characteristics. For example, in basketball the height of the hoop is lowered for the youngest athletes to match their level of strength. Similarly, in soccer the field (or play area) is smallest for the youngest athletes who also play with the smallest sized ball.

Many sports have begun using modified equipment and rules in recent years. For example, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) developed 10 & Under, now within Net Generation, which utilizes smaller, lighter rackets, bigger, less compressed tennis balls, shorter net heights, and smaller court sizes. The modified equipment is easier for children to use as their strength and height is taken into consideration. For example, a smaller, lighter tennis racket is easier to swing and a less compressed tennis ball bounces within the lower strike zone of a child. With adult equipment, the racket is too heavy and the bounce of the ball is too high which can lead to adaptions in the technique of the player in an attempt to hit the ball successfully. Other sports have also modified their sport for the youngest age groups such as US Soccer and Hockey.

While some have welcomed the use of modified sports, there is still some hesitation to modifying the equipment and rules for children. Some perceive modifying the sport as an inferior format and believe that the best athletes should be playing with regulation equipment as soon as possible. However, an increasing amount of research on modified sport shows that more success and correct skill acquisition happen when children used modified equipment compared to adult equipment.

What Does the Research Say?

Research on modifying youth sport is growing and more focus is being put on how scaling equipment is related to skill acquisition. A few recent studies are summarized below.

Forehand Groundstroke in Tennis

In their study, Buszard, Farrow, Reid & Masters (2014) looked at whether children playing tennis had more success hitting a forehand groundstroke with modified equipment as compared to adult equipment. Using a mix of three racket sizes and three levels of tennis ball compression, the researchers found that the children hit the most successful forehands when using the smallest racket and the least compressed ball (which bounced the lowest). Not only did they have more success, they also used the correct technique more often. They were more likely to swing the racket low to high and strike the tennis ball in front and to the side of the body when playing with the modified equipment. Therefore, it may be that using the modified equipment, the kids were developing the right skills rather than adapting their technique to hit a ball that bounces to high with a racket that is too heavy.

Shooting in Basketball

Modifying equipment has also been shown to lead to better shot performance in basketball. Arias, Argudo, and Alonso (2012) had 54 children between the ages 9-11 play multiple basketball games with three balls that differed in mass (light, regulation, heavy). After finishing the games, the researchers found that the children had the most shot attempts and successful when they played with the lightest mass basketball. Not only were they able to practice shooting more often in the game, they had more successful shots as compared to when they played with the regular or heavier basketball.

Puck Control in Hockey

The benefits of modifying sport is not only for children. In hockey, Stone, Nimmins, and Strafford (2018) had over 50 participants, with an average age of 22 years, complete an obstacle course and take a shot against a goal keeper with three different puck masses. The least skilled participants completed the obstacle course quicker with less errors when using the lightest puck. They also had more goal scoring success with the lightest hockey puck as well.


While this is just a sample of the research on modified sport, a recent review of the research by Buszard, Reid, Masters, and Farrow (2016) found that majority of studies showed that participants had a better skill performance when playing with modified equipment and play areas in a range of sports such as basketball, cricket, tennis, and volleyball. In addition, participants reported greater engagement and enjoyment when using modified equipment as compared to standard equipment.

How Does This Research Apply to You?

As coach, you have the opportunity to use modified equipment, play areas, and rules in a way that will benefit your athletes. Not only is modified sport related to skill development, it is also found to lead to more enjoyment and engagement with athletes. This is important as feeling success, learning new skills, and having fun is what keeps kids involved in sports. While the research is still growing in this area, it may be time to start experimenting with different equipment and play areas to find out which works best for your athlete’s skill development. Many sports already have rules and guidelines for using modified equipment when teaching the youngest age groups, make sure you know and use those guidelines. However, children develop at different rates so stay aware of when a child is ready to switch to a different size. Also, when working with beginners at any age, don’t be afraid to start their skill development with modified equipment. Using modified equipment can help them focus on the correct technique without some of the barriers that come with adult equipment. They may learn the correct techniques easier while enjoying more success, keeping them in the sport longer.

Jennifer Nalepa is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology.  She works in the graduate programs in sport coaching and leadership and teaches courses in sport psychology, athlete development, and positive youth development.  She conducts research on coach education and athlete development. Jennifer also coordinates the Summer Coaches School, a two day coach education event, at Michigan State University and the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.