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The excitement on a child’s face when they pull on a team jersey for the first time makes all the carpooling, fundraising and weekends spent in courts, pools or at the field worth it. But for many kids, the joy of organized team sports fades the closer they get to adolescence. Research suggests that around one in three young athletes quit by the age of 14, with girls outnumbering boys. The same cannot be said for recreational sports.
Admittedly, some of the attrition rate is the result of natural attrition. From the ages of six to 12, children sample many activities, including organized sports. These are formative years when children test the waters to see what sports they enjoy. This is also when they learn the fundamental skills that lay the foundation for sports participation. Yet, somewhere between pulling on that first jersey and mastering sport-specific skills, excitement often turns to apathy.
Much of the discussion about the dropout rates of youth sports centers on the idea that the fun that characterized those early years fades away as kids approach their teenage years. Demands for early specialization and too much focus on winning, instead of individual skill development and participation, reward only the most skilled.
To find out more about the teenage dropout rate, researchers from Halmstad University in Sweden reviewed the results of 12 studies that investigated why so many adolescents hang up their cleats and skates in favor of more sedentary pursuits.
“Despite more than 30 years of research on the topic, why adolescent athletes drop out of team sports is still an important question,” the researchers said.
The importance of sports during adolescence should not be underestimated. Not only do young athletes tend to have better physical and mental health than their less active peers, they learn the value of teamwork, time management, work ethic, perseverance, resilience and critical thinking. These soft skills often translate to better grades in school and improved social and leadership abilities—traits that are important at any age, but probably more so during the teenage years, when self-confidence and self-actualization are at an all-time low.
Interestingly, it’s not always the shortest or least muscular teenagers who drop out of sports, which is good news for anyone whose growth spurt lags behind their teammates. What does matter is skill, and not just how it is perceived by others. Athletes who question their own ability on the playing field are more likely to drop out than those who consider themselves among the most skilled on the team. Boosting confidence by focusing on progress, rather than mistakes, can keep more kids in the game.
Also important is social support provided by coaches, parents and peers. During the early years of organized sports, parents were fully invested in their children’s experience. They enroll in sports, organize their equipment, drive to practices and games, watch from the stands and recognize the steady acquisition of skills.
But as adolescence approaches, more of those tasks fall on the athlete. If their experience is satisfactory, they remain committed to the demands of a team. If not, thoughts begin to fall out. Motivation that comes from within, rather than from parents, is one of the most important characteristics that separates teenagers who are still in the game from early dropouts.
According to the research, how teenagers view their experience on the team is another crucial element in keeping them motivated to stay in sports, and much of that is related to coaching. Young athletes respond to coaching that focuses on developing the potential of each player while emphasizing a supportive and respectful relationship between teammates—skills that do not come naturally to every coach. Hence the role of the organization in fostering a culture that values coaching designed to keep kids in sports, not just produce winning teams. Workshops that develop more than technical skills behind the bench can transform the experience for children of all ages and skill levels.
That culture of inclusion and personal development must involve parents and teammates. This means starting each season by establishing the rules of the game, including the type of commitment and discourse expected of the team members and their support system. Some of that dialogue may be centered on winning, but most of it should be about the importance of the team reaching its full potential by creating a climate that values the positive contribution of all players, regardless of their skill level.
Keeping kids in the game is a team sport, with parents, coaches, organizations and the teenagers themselves contributing to make their experiences more positive. Less pressure to succeed, more support from coaches and parents and more fun on the bench means more children are reaping the benefits of sport.
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