Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

A new look at kids quitting sports

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You’ve heard the stat thrown around many times — three-quarters (or something like that) of kids quit organized sports by the time they’re 13. Often, this number is presented as some sort of en masse protest against the overcompetitiveness of youth sports, a mark of its failure to develop players’ skills and love of the game.

A Canadian study says that’s only sort of true. It’s not exactly peer-reviewed, but numbers examined by the youth registration software company ITSportsConnector make for some interesting grist for the youth sports participation mill.

The study, looking at 1.7 million registration records for youth soccer clubs, notes that “teenagers don’t quit; they just stop being attracted.” Meaning, many young soccer players try the sport for a year, then quit. At younger ages, there are enough new players to replace those who have moved on. But as players get older, and the barrier to entry become higher, there aren’t enough new players to replace those who have quit the sport.

Looking at the following chart, there is some decline in returning players as they move through the teenage years. But the real falloff is among new players.


From ITSportsConnector:

Conjecture is that there is no good path for new teenage recruits into a sport where the length of playing time has a significant impact on short term skill level.  Unfortunately, bypassing this group leaves out late bloomers or converts from other sports. This result, consistent with observations that sports silos develop over time, indicates the barriers to entering a different sport are too high to overcome.  To engage teenage prospects, more of the marketing effort will have to target this age group and fast track a development program, focusing on short term competency for late joiners.

The misconception that teenagers lose interest in sports comes from looking only at total player counts that give the false impression of a significant down turn after age 12. This can cause the misalignment of programs and funding that misses the point. …

More study is required to verify these findings, within a multi-sport context, and to determine the causes behind these results. The irony of this situation is that the involvement in sporting activity is commonly seen to have its greatest value in the teenage years, combating both anti-social activity and sedentary lifestyles for adolescents.

The study is intriguing. It seems to posit that it’s not that kids are discouraged in sports in general by age 13. It’s that they might become discouraged, or at least sick of, a particular sport. But the way the youth sports world is set up, there are few opportunities for someone who is 12 or 13 or older to pick up a new sport, even on a rec league level. So they don’t play at all.

I’m not sure how or who won run the short-term sessions for late joiners that this study talks about, but it’s an interesting idea. Or another idea, which I’ve pounded home, is expanding rec and intramural opportunities for kids interesting in playing a sport and having a life.

Brian McCormick at The Crossover Movement, where I saw a link to this study, used it to restate his desire (in basketball) to create an Elite Development League for serious high school players, and leave school sports for, well, students. I’ll let McCormick speak:

If players now do not try a new sport in high school because of the intimidation factor, if you remove the “superstar players” and make the high school leagues more like Division III college athletics and less like Division I athletics, more opportunities open for players who otherwise would not play high school basketball.

I also believe that one mission of youth development programs should be to offer leagues for players cut from high school teams, especially freshmen. If freshmen had another competitive outlet during the high school season, more players would stay involved in the sport and players would have a better chance to make a team after being cut.

As it stands, in some districts, if you do not make the 7th grade team, you should find a new sport. The 8th grade coach picks almost the same team as the 7th grade coach because the players “know the system” and these kids feed into the high school, where the high school coach believes that the kids from the 8th grade team are the better players. Isn’t 7th grade a little young to decide who should and should not ultimately play varsity basketball? But, if there is no other outlet for those players cut from their teams in 7th grade or 9th grade, how can they improve their skills and game awareness at a higher rate than those who made the team? While the difference between two players may be very, very slight in 7th grade, the kid who makes the team, practices every day, plays in 20-30 games, etc. will have a big advantage over the player cut from the team who does not get the practices, games or repetitions (not to mention the affect on the players’ confidence).

So, how can we recruit more high school kids to basketball, rather than cutting more players? Who should develop these supplemental programs? School districts? Parks & Recreation? If we really want to use organized sports to combat childhood obesity, shouldn’t the goal of youth sports be to include as many players as possible, not to eliminate players as quickly as possible?

One Response

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  1. Great article. It proves one of my beliefs that statistics are only as good as how they were created and then, how they are used. Whenever reading statistics from any source, it is a good idea to really dissect the information making sure you look at all the pieces, how those pieces were formed, what they are supposedly showing, and whether the author has an agenda behind their use thus possibly spoiling the paramaters of the study.

    Again, great post

    Kirk Mango

    Kirk Mango

    May 6, 2009 at 7:05 pm

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