Young players just want to have fun

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There can be no doubt that there is a wide range of benefits for children taking part in organised sport. Given the obvious advantages of taking part in such games, no matter what sport is involved, the alarming question that has puzzled many observers over the years is, why do so many drop out?

Clearly the positive effect on physical health is one of the main advantages of taking up a sport, but research clearly illustrates that there are many more benefits. According to an article in the benefits of taking part in sport extend way beyond exercise and are critical in the overall development of a young person.

“A growing body of research literature finds that in addition to improved physical health, sport plays a primarily positive role in youth development, including improved academic achievement, higher self-esteem, fewer behavioural problems and better psychosocial”.

children playing soccer

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The article sums up the sentiment of many other related articles by referring sport enhancing the five “Cs” –

  • competence,
  • confidence,
  • connections,
  • character and
  • caring

as being vital to youth development. This development is greatly enhanced by the discipline of training, team-work, following instructions of coaches, and learning to lose, which provide lifelong skills.

Alarming drop out rate by mid teens

With such obvious advantages, it becomes even more concerning that so many children give up on sport at a young age. Related questions include why they want to drop out, or why they are allowed to drop out? Studies show that while there is an increase in children taking part in sports and a greater variety available than in previous generations, many have given up by the time they reach their mid teens. One study by Carleton Kendrick suggests that the alarming high figure of 70 per cent have dropped out of organised sport by the time they are 13 years old. In 2000, the number of American youth who played on at least one organised sport team was found to be 54% of kids between ages 6 and 17 (American Sports Data, Inc. 2005). A similar study five years later showed that among a slightly older age group of 10- to 17-year-olds, sport participation had jumped to 59% (National Survey of Children’s Health 2005).

However, the news was not so good in a related study that suggested that team sport participation peaks at age 11 and frequent participation by both boys and girls in team sports is declining. So, if so many young children are taking up sport, why are some many not continuing beyond their mid-teens? There are some reasons that are more easily understood than others. For example the expense in terms of travelling, coaching and equipment may be prohibitive to many families. Also time constraints in terms of the need to concentrate on education also put barriers to staying with a sport.

Sport has to be fun

However, more concerning to the countless organisations who promote sport among young people is the simple fact that many kids drop out simply because it is no longer fun. This is quite a broad heading, but it contains a number of issues that could be addressed to ensure more young people stay active. A 1992 study of 8,000 youth ranked having fun as the primary reason for participating in sport. More recent research confirms the obvious—that sustained participation in sport is related to an ongoing positive experience, which includes having fun, improving skills, and having positive interactions with peers and adults.

Too much emphasis on winning

It seems clear that when this initial phase of having fun disappears, the child’s desire to remain with the sport goes too and there are a variety of reasons why this happens. In many cases, the reasons for not having fun include can be traced back to an emphasis on winning, which leads to many demands on the child.

Early research by Terry Orlick, Ph.D., Professor, School of Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa found that athletes were discouraged by the over-emphasis on winning. This means that many participants suffer from a lack of playing time and in turn the loss of opportunities to gain experience and develop their skills.

A related issue is that of ‘burn out’ which is often the result of time and intensity of training, pressure to perform, high expectations of parents and coaches, and the inability to experience other social activities. Physical exhaustion as well as developing frequent injuries are also common problems. Poor levels of coaching mean that despite the often well-intended approach, children become frustrated by the poor teaching methods and often boring approach. Too often there is a concentration on those who already have skills, rather than trying to develop those children who are not yet as advanced.

Starting a sport too early (perhaps as young as 3 or 4) can result in children becoming bored and losing interest within a number of years. Another factor that can lead to children to losing their passion for sport is specialisation at a young age rather then experiencing a variety of sports. Côté and Gilbert suggests that sport sampling—that is, diversifying at early ages—more effectively promotes lifelong engagement in physical activity and combats childhood obesity.

Unrealistic expectations for parents and coaches often lead to criticism which drive children away from sport. The various studies leave little doubt that the best way to encourage children to stay with a sport is to make it enjoyable. A fun environment is essential in order to allow participants develop passion for sport and to allow them to develop skills to their own potential.

Adults need to take responsibility

In essence, many of the reasons why children drop out of sport at such a young age is down to adults – coaches and parents – which suggests that it is essential that they get back to the basics of sport as enjoyment. Sports psychology expert Rick Wolff, author of Good Sports, stresses that parents of kids ages 5-12 need not be concerned with their child’s excellence at particular skills. “Those are unimportant. The key here is having your child develop a sense of passion for the sport.” Mark Hyman, author of Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, writes that adults are messing things up, moving from a “core mission of providing healthy, safe and character-building recreation” and turning “sports for children into a de facto professional league.” With seven-year-olds being scouted and handed brutal practice schedules, too often the message for kids is performance and winning above all.



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