Dropping Out

10/10/2013

An astounding 20 to 30 million kids play sport each year, but according to the experts at Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a surprising 70% of kids drop out of sports by age 13.  (source: Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports). When kids are asked why they drop out, they say it wasn’t fun anymore, there was too much pressure to win, they didn’t get any playing time, they didn’t enjoy playing the sport anymore, they felt sports took up too much time, or they felt like they did not have a positive relationship with the coach.  Many of these issues seem very ‘solvable’ to the team here at Responsible Sports. So we turned to the experts at PCA along with our national youth sport partners to create a checklist: Ways To Help Prevent Sports Dropout.


Reason #1: Too Much Pressure To Win

We sometimes don’t realize how much pressure our kids feel, especially in the context of sports.  We might say we don’t care if our child wins or loses, but our body language gives away our disappointment when they lose.  PCA Chief Impact Officer Tina Syer often relays her own story: her collegiate field hockey players noticed that she would rub her forehead when a play didn’t go correctly or the opposition scored.  So, yes, it happens to the best of us!  Oftentimes when we interview professional athletes about their youth sports experience, they tell us about how their parents really didn’t follow the win and loss record – and perhaps their parents’ ability to focus beyond the scoreboard  helped their kids stay in sports.  (Hear the stories from athletes like USA Water Polo goalie Tumua Anae, USA Wrestling National Team member Adeline Gray and USA Volleyball National Team middle blocker Christa Harmotto to see what we mean.) When we as coaches and youth sport parents practice a Mastery Approach -- attending less to  the scoreboard and more to learning, effort and bouncing back from mistakes -- we not only focus our athletes but we also focus ourselves and hopefully eliminate this ‘pressure to win’ on our kids.

Reason #2: Sports Is Taking Up Too Much Time

One of the areas that Responsible Coaches and Responsible Sport Parents worry about is the pressure to specialize.  An outgrowth from that specialization is that kids are spending more and more time in sports – extra practices during the week, multiple teams (house team and travel teams), and in some case individual training efforts.  It can all be a bit much for kids.  USA Hockey’s Ken Martel oftentimes tells parents, “I love pizza.  But if I had pizza every day, for lunch and dinner, I might get sick of it.  Sure, your kids love hockey.  But too much hockey can destroy that love.”  One of the ways we can help keep kids in sports is to give them some time away from the sport they love – either by playing another sport, or using the time to pursue other interests.

Reason #3: I’m Not Enjoying The Sport Anymore

PCA Founder and Chief Executive Officer Jim Thompson  helps coaches understand that practice – even more than games – can be the space where coaches have the greatest impact on kids.  “Responsible Coaches can leverage ‘teachable moments’ that happen at nearly every practice to really impart the life lessons that sports can uniquely teach,” says Thompson.

 But just because we’re trying to teach skills and share life lessons doesn’t mean that practice has to be too serious.  In the past, coaches lined up players and drilled a skill.  While the kid at the front of the line, handling the ball and shooting on goal was thrilled, the other 18 in line were bored!  Today, Responsible Coaches break down drills into smaller groups, introduce non-traditional games to teach skills (we just witnessed USA Hockey National Team members John Carlson and Phil Kessel playing soccer on the ice – yes soccer – as a way to teach great skate skills), and create small three-on-three game competitions using newly learned techniques.  When practice is fun, Responsible Sport Parents notice that kids come home energized and excited, regardless of the current win-loss record or their playing status.

Reason #4: Don’t Have A Positive Relationship With the Coach

We know better than most: it is HARD to be a youth sport coach!  But while we know it’s a very tough job, it’s also a really important job—and we are so thankful that so many of you take on this role in your communities.  When kids say they don’t have a positive relationship with their coach, it doesn’t always mean they have a horror-story, yelling and screaming coach (although those exist out there – and no wonder kids don’t want to be around that!)  But sometimes kids’ challenges with their coaches come down to how they receive criticism.  Kids are sensitive and oftentimes only hear the negative (don’t we all fall into that trap sometimes?).  Tools that PCA emphasizes, such as Criticism Sandwiches, You’re The Kind Of Kid Statements, If-Then Statements and Asking For Permission First are all great for instructing and providing feedback to kids in a way that leaves them feeling positive about themselves and their coach.

Reason #5: It’s Not Fun Anymore

In the end, the number 1 reason kids don’t continue with sports is that it’s simply not fun anymore. PCA Lead Trainer Eric Eisendrath reminds parents: “Kids’ goals for playing sports are oftentimes to spend time with their friends, have something to do after school, or just simply to have fun.  Not to get the scholarship or to break the state record.”  Responsible Sport Parents kick off the season by having a conversation with their kids about their goals for the season, and then work hard to make sure those goals stay at the forefront of their approach to the season.  If your child wants to play sports to have fun with her friends, let’s make sure she gets that chance.  (A commercial on TV of a team full of smiling kids heading off to a restaurant after losing the Championship reminds us that the ‘fun’ in sports can sometimes be more about the post-game outing than the game itself.)  And Responsible Coaches know that having fun at practice – and incorporating fun into learning – is the key to success.

We know we can’t stop every kid from dropping out – the fact is, sports isn’t for every kid.  (And that’s okay!)  But we do think Responsible Coaches and Responsible Sport Parents can help make youth sports more positive for kids, creating an environment for kids to learn, grow, flourish and have fun.  USA Hockey National Team member and NHL Colorado Avalanche Paul Stastny became a star hockey player late in his career. USA Volleyball Men’s National Team player Rich Lambourne  didn’t even start playing volleyball until high school. Both are great examples of how environments where kids keep playing can generate surprising results.  And even here in the Responsible Sports office, many of us kept playing sports well into college – sometimes on club and intramural teams – simply because we loved to play and were encouraged throughout our youth to keep playing.  We hope we can give our kids that same gift – the gift of sports!

What are some other ways we as Responsible Coaches and Responsible Sport Parents can help change the environment of youth sports to encourage kids to continue to play?  How can we help reverse the trend of kids dropping out by age 13?  Join us on Facebook and share your thoughts – we’d really love to hear from you!  And once again, we wanted to say THANK YOU for joining the Responsible Sport movement.  We appreciate your support! 


In an effort to benefit millions of youth athletes, parents and coaches, this article is among a series created exclusively for partners in the Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports Program powered by Positive Coaching Alliance.

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