YOUTH SPORTS ARTICLE FROM THE SPRING MSHSL BULLETIN
By Kevin Merkle, Associate Director of the MSHSL
In the winter edition of the Bulletin, I wrote an article that focused on Sport Specialization. I shared information in regard to the reasons why this has become an issue and also shared some of the dangers of sports specialization and the positives of being a multiple sport athlete.
There are many downsides, and very few upsides to sports specialization. The challenge is that parents, coaches and kids either don’t understand the issue, and/or they feel that sports specialization will benefit them personally. In this article I will continue “the discussion” on this issue, by taking a somewhat different angle, relating how sports specialization is major issue in kids quitting sports. I will also add additional information in support of multiple sport athletes.
Recently I attended the USA Football National Conference as a guest. One of the sessions was entitled “Why Do Kids Quit Sports?” The presenter was John O’Sullivan, a former college and professional soccer player; a coach at youth, high school and the college level; an internationally known speaker; a best-selling author; and the founder of Changing the Game Project.
Amongst other info that will be covered later, John shared the statistic that many have heard: 7 out of 10 players quit organized youth sports by the age of 13. During this conference it was also shared that while there is concern that the numbers in youth football are down due to safety issues, research shows that all team sports are down in participation, with the exception of Lacrosse. Football is down 6% over the last 4 yrs; Basketball and Baseball down 7%; and the numbers are similar in other sports, including hockey.
When kids quite by age 13 we never see them in school programs. How many of those athletes would contribute to our programs? More importantly, if we truly believe in the value of high school sports and that they teach life lessons kids obviously need to participate in order to learn those lessons. There are good reasons why not all youth will continue past the age of 13 (lack of talent, other interests, lack of motivation, it’s not for everyone, etc.). However way too many are quitting for other reasons – especially due to burnout, and/or “it’s no longer fun;” thus missing this opportunity to learn lessons that will benefit them the rest of their lives.
Another reason to be concerned about decreasing numbers is that it is becoming a major health issue.
O’Sullivan shared research indicating that current 10 year olds will live 5 years less than their parents – with a major reason being obesity/lack of activity. Research further shows that active 10, 11 and 12 year olds are more likely to remain active as they get older.
Physically healthy kids are one-tenth as likely to be obese; will score up to 40% higher on test scores; and are less likely to smoke, use drugs and exhibit other risky behaviors. Additionally active kids (as they get older)are 15% more likely to go to college; will have 7-8% higher earnings; lower health costs; more productivity at work; reduced risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes; and as active parents are two times more likely to have active kids. Wow! Where is there better support for co-curricular activity programs?
We have all heard the reasons why kids play sports – research shows that it is for the following reasons amongst others: to have fun (always #1); to do something I’m good at; to be with my friends and part of a team; to get exercise and stay in shape; and the excitement of competition.
According to O’Sullivan, here are the top five reasons why kids are quitting:
- Stops being fun – lose the pleasure and joy of participation.
- Kids lose control – especially due to early specialization and parents/coaches over-coaching and over-guiding.
- The focus on outcomes vs. process starts way too early
- Kids feel disrespected
- Do not feel that it’s safe to fail – (the car ride home)
Note the impact of early specialization. This is number two on the list, but I would suggest that this also impacts the other reasons as well – especially the “fun” part and the focus on the outcomes vs. focus on the process.
O’Sullivan, in his book “Changing the Game” shares the following MYTH about youth sports. “Children need to specialize early in a specific sport if they want to play competitively, play high school, play college, or even play professional sports. The science tells us that this is just not true. With the exception of a few early specialization sports—figure skating and gymnastics as examples—most athletes benefit from a multisport background. Participation in multiple sports leads to better overall athleticism, fewer overuse injuries, and fewer kids who burn out at a young age. Unfortunately, many parents are swayed by travel clubs and private coaches who promise the world, but only if their ten-year-old discards all other activities and dedicates his life to one sport. “
While many of the reasons that cause kids to quit happen in youth sports, we need to first examine our school programs and build on the reasons that kids participate and eliminate the issues that cause them to quit. We need to increase the likelihood of kids continuing their participation – making sure that our programs fun; that kids are building relationships; feel that they are part of the team; and have opportunities to compete. We need to allow kids to keep some control by allowing them to “play;” keep the focus on the process not the outcome; always treat kids with respect and make it safe to fail. We can control what happens in our school programs.
The tougher challenge is to influence the youth programs in our communities. When kids quite before thirteen the damage is being done before kids get to the school programs. As leaders in educational athletics there is a need for us, as coaches and administrators, to educate youth coaches and parents. We need to do what we can to make sure that youth programs are fun for the kids by asking them what they want. Further we need to give kids ownership in the programs; be patient and let the play; provide better education for coaches so that they treat kids respectfully; and make it safe to fail.
The following quote from John O’Sullivan summaries the issue: “The innocence and joy of American youth sports has been corrupted. Rarely do kids just get to “play” sports anymore. Instead, they get to “work” sports, a movement caused by the misguided notion that our kids need to specialize early and win at all costs to get that college scholarship and justify the investment made in youth athletics. The romance is gone, the fun is gone, and sports are no longer play.”
And we wonder why kids quit?
(Printed with permission from the author)