By Bruce E. Brown
If the statistics are true that 72 percent of athletes in America drop out of organized athletics by the age of 13,* then why are we focusing so hard on high school and college coaches? Shouldn’t we be focusing on all youth, AAU and junior high coaches as well as their parents?
High school coaches know what kind of memories and lessons their athletes experience from participation and believe it is a shame that only 28 percent of students will ever be at a high school practice, ever hear a pre-game and halftime talk, ever be praised or disciplined by a varsity head coach, and ever know the joy of camaraderie, togetherness and love at the high school level. For almost three out of four athletes, the only coach and athletic team they will ever experience happens before they reach their teenage years. We have worked with schools that have more than 80 percent of their students active in athletics and want to congratulate those schools and communities that have found a way to keep them involved.
What other organization or company survives in the world with a 28-percent success rate? That is what our youth, AAU and middle school coaches and parents are producing, right? I know of no job in the world that if you produced 28 percent you would still be employed. An attorney with a 28-percent success rate in the court room? A cook who gets the meal right 28 percent of the time? A surgeon with a 28-percent success rate on the operating table? An airline pilot who has a 28-percent success rate on landing planes? “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I want to thank you for flying with us today. Please sit back and relax as we make our way onto the runway. I have successfully landed this aircraft 28 percent of the time. If we make this landing, please consider flying with us again.”
Some young people are lucky enough to find and focus on another passion where they can learn the same valuable lessons. But when we lose athletes before high school, they are not coming back. Even if they wanted to return, their skill level is behind the rest of the team and creates problems for the player and the team down the road. The same is true in most performance activities.
One of the realities of sports is that everyone who plays eventually reaches a level where they do not have the physical ability to compete, and much of this attrition is just because of that factor. Even the pros eventually get to an age or level where their skills do not allow them to continue. But when working with young athletes, we have found that there are five additional reasons that cause them to lose their natural love of playing a game besides ability:
The best coaches have learned how to create victories in practice allowing young athletes to experience success. Small successes lead to more aggressive, confident, fearless athletes.
This is why so much of our published materials and presentations are focused on character-based coaching. Coaches are the key to both positive and negative athletic experiences.
Mental or physical tiredness
This happens most often when athletes focus and compete in one sport all year. For example, what was fun and exciting to be chosen to play year-round select soccer at age 9 or 10 for many young athletes turns into forced labor at age 14 or 15. Watch closely for signs of burnout.
Making the game too complex
This is the result of adults trying to teach too much too soon. Teach the kids to love the game; then start teaching them how to play it. Keep the game simple and instinctive so kids can play without paralysis by analysis.
This is mainly the result of parents who are pushing too hard or living through their kids. When it is more important to the adult than it is to the athlete, it is a red flag. Never invest more in a sport than your child. As a high school sophomore said recently, “I wish my parents had something to do other than my sports.”
Somehow, we need to target those younger groups to help pull this number up. Every time we have a parent or coach say to us, “He/she seems to have lost their love of the game,” we go right back to this list and say it is either one or a combination of these factors.
*“Research in Youth Sports: Critical Issues Status,” by Ryan Hedstrom and Daniel Gould, Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, College of Education, Michigan State University, November 1, 2004.
About the Author: Bruce E. Brown, a teacher, coach and athletic administrator at the high school and college levels for 35 years, is head of the online coaching tool, Proactive Coaching, http://www.proactivecoaching.info/proactive/. He is based in Camano Island, Washington.