Why Kids Quit Youth Sport: How Building Culture Can Turn Things Around.
There exists teachable skill that has a big impact on experience. It may be the missing answer to the decline in youth sport participation.
The realization is starting to kick in. The participation decline in youth sport is a trend that many are starting to notice. More and more we are seeing the statistics and they are shocking. Over 40 million kids in North American register to play a sport each year. 70% of those registered will quit their sport by the age of 13.
Once we get past the denial that this is happening, and stop blaming events like COVID, the trend can then be addressed for what it is, a massive reduction in those benefitting from participating.
There are many reasons why this is happening, and they are different depending on age group. The overemphasis on winning, parental pressure and not having any fun all contribute as to why kids stop playing. In older ages, an article in the Washington Post cites the following :
Our culture no longer supports older kids playing for the fun of it. The pressure to raise ‘successful’ kids means that we expect them to be the best. If they’re not, they’re encouraged to cut their losses and focus on areas where they can excel.
This is the reality leading to the decline.
The challenge then becomes what can be done to stop the decline and turn this around?
Let’s start at the beginning.
Why do kids play?
Dr. Goyakla Apache, documented the reasons kids play in 2015.
Over 35% of the millions of children who play youth sports quit after the first year of competition. 85% of the children who continue to play dropped out of organized sports all together between the ages of 10 and 17.
He cited the following reasons kids play:
· To have Fun
· To improve their skills
· To be with friends
· To do something they're good at
· For the excitement of competition
· To become physically fit
· To be part of a team
· For the challenge of competition
· To learn new skills
· To succeed or win
Identified as reasons they quit:
· Overemphasis on winning
· Lost Interest
· Not having fun
· Time consuming
· Coach was a poor teacher
· Too much pressure
· Tired of playing
· Need more study time
· Coaches play favorites
· The Sport was boring
There is a lot to unpack here. Identifying these contributing factors start to paint the picture of where things are going wrong.
Not having fun, too much focus on winning, too much pressure, coach related, time related, the sport is boring, all start to paint the picture of what is wrong, which in turn can build a road to solutions.
Make the sport more fun. Make practices more fun. Take the emphasis off winning. That should help, yes?
Simple, not easy.
In July, The Physical Movement published an article highlighting 8 ways to make youth sports more fun. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather spark the conversation and planning to address the poison arrow of youth sport , not having any fun!
The 8th of these reasons is to build a positive culture around the activity. This deserves a little more analysis.
How to create a positive culture around with your athletes?
This is where we start to really look at the parts of youth sport that have become the norm, as identified above. What is lacking and what is needed can be derived from the list of why kids quit.
Amanda Visek, a professor at George Washington University, has designed a comprehensive research project to map out what kids think is “fun” or “not fun” about playing sports—and the answers are far from what adults tend to expect. Rather than defining fun as goofing off, the young sports players in the research study defined fun in 81 different ways, and the three most important categories were “being a good sport,” “positive coaching,” and “trying hard.”
Visek also researched what kids feel takes the fun out of sports, and some of the most prevalent answers had to do with unwanted parent behaviors (such as putting too much pressure on athletes or yelling at coaches or officials during games) and unwanted coaching behaviors.
There is a pattern here, and much of it is coaching and parent related.
Let’s dig in: part of getting kids to be “good sports” and trying hard is related to having them understand how and why this is important.
Why is it important to be a good sport? How can we teach our youth to respect the game, the opponent, the officials and the competitive process?
Why is trying hard important? Define trying hard. Show them. Explain simple benefits to high effort. Reward effort.
Are there more important life skills than sportsmanship and strong work ethic?
The ability for the coach to break these down define positive coaching. A positive coach is not defined by simply smiling (although that is a good start!).
A positive coach is one who builds a strong culture.
A strong culture comes down to a couple of areas that are worth examining.
It starts with a sense of connectivity. There is a ton of value in building a tribe of like-minded individuals from different backgrounds who are brought together by a sense of adventure and discovery in their chosen sport.
What memorable moments can playing sport add to the bank of positive experiences?
The connection to others on the team, and to the process of development and growth that comes from pursuing a common goal.
Daniel Coyle in his best-selling book the Culture Code focuses on 3 main areas in building a positive culture. Safety, vulnerability, and purpose. In the book (details below) Coyle brings the point of building culture as being not a soft skill, but a leadership skill that can be taught, learned, practiced and developed.
It may be the key to stemming the tide around the decline of participation in youth sport.
As we head into 2022, the sport being a safe environment for the athlete has never been more important. The connection the athletes feel with others leads to the development of an environment that attracts participation. Building a connected and safe environment comes from the coaches inserting many belonging cues.
Belonging cues include eye contact, listening, open and positive body language, turn taking, physical proximity.
How many coaching clinics cover the development of applying the skills of belong cues?
“Just hearing something said rarely results in a change in behavior. They’re just words. When we see people in our peer group play with an idea, our behavior changes. That’s how intelligence is created. That’s how culture is created.”
— From The Culture Code – Daniel Coyle https://a.co/cAygVu5
Vulnerability is not weakness. Teams and individuals that view vulnerability as weakness are afraid to make mistakes, won’t ask for help, blame, and shame.
A coaching admitting and showing imperfection is a steppingstone to viewing vulnerability as a strength. Sharing a hardship and do the same with the team built that strength. Tough conversations are how growth happens.
A common story leads to a strong purpose. The sense of purpose comes from connecting your team to a narrative that is bigger than themselves. Build a story within the purpose. Why do we do what we do? Where you are going and why. While this could be tied to getting better and improvement, it becomes a slippery slope when this is tied only to outcome, to winning. Especially at all costs.
The best sport experiences are often linked to that team with good chemistry.
Some more from The Culture Code:
“When you encounter a group with good chemistry, you know it instantly. It’s a paradoxical, powerful sensation, a combination of excitement and deep comfort that sparks mysteriously with certain special groups and not with others. There’s no way to predict it or control it. Or is there?”
“Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”
“We focus on what we can see—individual skills. But individual skills are not what matters. What matters is the interaction.”