By: Bryce Wadsworth
As kids, most of us have at least tried to play youth level sports. In fact, 60% of boys and 47% of the nation’s girls are on a sports team by the age of 6 (ActiveKids.com), which is very beneficial to their growth and transition towards adulthood.
Athletics have always been an outlet for the youth to learn key skills to take with them throughout their whole life. They are given the opportunity to build their discipline, mental toughness, and cooperation skills, while also embracing and working through adversity at a young age. All of this experience has helped millions of kids as they grow up, but the participation has significantly decreased over the years.
As of 2008, an alarming 80% of youth athletes give up their sport by the age of 15 years old (ActiveKids.com), which is a major issue.
Understandably, parents may want to avoid injury and the other harmful side effects that may come with playing competitive sports. However, all of these children are losing the opportunity to build essential life skills,and instead they begin investing their time into wasteful habits (i.e video games) that take their minds away from other important tasks (like schoolwork and physical health). The point is this; participation in youth sports has led to a drop off in “next level” players and we are letting a valuable outlet of education die.
For the past four years, I have had the pleasure of coaching youth football in my hometown. The very same program that I came up through and fell in love with the sport in. It has been an absolutely incredible experience to give back to the community and be a role model to dozens of kids each year. With that being said, the sport has changed tremendously since I was a little footballer. In my team’s Pop Warner league, there are no kickoffs, stricter contact penalties, regulations as to how much time is devoted to “full contact” drills, “intense” contact activities like the infamous “Oklahoma” drill is now frowned upon, and in some age groups you aren’t even allowed to drop linemen into a three-point stance.
I can understand why parents are afraid of injury to their child, however so many rule changes and advancements in equipment technology are designed to protect athletes. There are safety protocols from anything like a bruised knee to something as severe as a concussion. Although I may not,and others may not agree with SOME of the rule changes to a physical sport, I feel as though the children are protected. So, in my opinion, the issue is NOT injury concern.
Instead, I see this mass of drop-out athletes coming from something else. The top reasons as to why kids quit sports are heartbreaking. Kids have reported that the game isn’t fun anymore, the time demanded by coaches is too much, and there is too much pressure to perform at an extremely high level. This is an issue that derives not from the player or parent, but from the coaches themselves.
As a coach myself, I have had the opportunity to be an unbiased member of the staff. I don’t have any investment other than being passionate about football and the responsibility that I’m assigned by the head coach. I started out as an assistant student-athlete coach who was just trying to help some kids get better at linebacker. Now, fast forward four years, and I have learned and grown a whole lot. I was promoted to defensive coordinator, given full control over the defensive side of the ball, and (most importantly) given the opportunity to be a critical leader to a group of 21 young men.
As a player, I played two years of varsity linebacker in high school and I was always, primarily, a defensive player. So I already knew what sort of defense and formations I wanted to implement throughout the season. However, as I’ve learned to control my intensity, become more patient, and learned to teach football techniques and life values over the years, I knew what my main responsibility as a role model on this football team had to be. Ever since the head coach, and a very good friend of mine, sent me the text that he wanted me to be his defensive coordinator, I knew that my goal was simply to help these kids progress.
All I wanted to do was win when I played, yet I was never taught that. My mindset was never forced into my brain, I was just born that way. What some youth coaches may not understand is that you cannot coach attitude, toughness, or dedication. Instead, you need to take the time to understand your players, and help them learn, grow, and progress each and every opportunity you can. I find it very important to ask my athletes what they think they can improve on. I don’t sit and yell about how terrible the film was or how bad we were as a team on any given night. It is more beneficial for them to think instead. If they can wrap their heads around what they did wrong, they tend to then make an effort towards fixing the issue. Not only do they fix what was wrong, but they are then inclined to ask more questions to avoid future mistakes. All of this combined, and you have a group of young men willing to learn, get better, and become comfortable in their roles. THAT will lead into competitive play and a more enjoyable experience for the players.
Youth sports are not the same as high school, college, or the pros, so it is essential that we don’t treat the practices or games as such. This level of athletics is designed for these young children to learn and get better to then achieve more success in their sport (and potentially others) as they grow older. Just like how life is designed, right? You go to school, learn about stuff, and continually progress as you get older, until you become an established adult in society. My coaching philosophy intertwines both football and real-life application. My goal on the field, yes is to win and compete,but ultimately I want these young children to simply just improve. I want every one of my players to learn something new every time they suit up for practice or gameday. I want them to make friends, learn to cooperate, to fight through adversity, or to grasp new concepts (either football wise or relating to life skills). The real joy in youth sports is not the winning part. Although that is often seen as the goal of playing any sort of game, I dedicate myself to creating connections, relationships, and building bonds with these young men. I want to have an impact on their lives and have them remember what they learned with their time spent with me. If I can successfully do this, then I feel as though I have done my job, regardless of the outcome in the standings.
Pressuring kids into believing winning is necessary is not ethical or practical. Instead, you should motivate them and encourage to want to win. For example, the group of kids that I coach this season lost their season opener by a large margin, but very few seemed to even care. They were talkative and seemingly unbothered by the way their subpar performance. However, at the end of the next game we had lost again, but this time half of the kids were visibly upset. It took us two hard months of digging, but we finally had pulled out their will and their drive to win. In some ways, losing is better for them at such a young age. They learn to fight for what they want, instead of simply just getting everything handed to them. In our league, some organizations take all of their best players and stack them on one standout team, but we don’t. However, I think that our athletes end up with the most beneficial season compared to the rest. This is simply because we teach our players to earn things in life, they are put through adversity in games, and they learn that not everything is going to be an even playing field. Again, this is the same as it is in life. So, I believe our players will learn more, be more prepared for their next step in athletics, and take something away from their experience with our team and apply it to their life.
Overall, I believe that the cause of kids quitting athletics is because of pressures and unrealistic expectations that coaches put on to their players at young ages. Not only does it discourage them from an opportunity to have fun and play a cool game with their buddies, but that also takes away an incredible experience that will make them better people in the long run. My message, simply put is this: Let your kids have fun. Let them ask questions. Let them experience what it’s like to not only win, but to fail as well. Encourage them to play sports, and let them learn.
PCA. “Why Kids Quit Sports.” PCA Development Zone®, Positive Coaching Alliance, devzone.positivecoach.org/resource/externallink/why-kids-quit-sports#targetText=The%20main%20reasons%20kids%20quit,of%20competence%20at%20the%20sport.
Popwarner. “Website Manager.” Pop Warner Youth Football, 2019, http://www.popwarner.com/football.
Swanson, Beth. “Youth Sports Participation By the Numbers.” ACTIVEkids, Active.com, 29 June 2017, http://www.activekids.com/football/articles/youth-sports-participation-by-the-numbers#targetText=Though%20roughly%2045%20million%20children,have%20quit%20after%20age%2015.