All parents want their children to live long and healthy lives, and for many, this leads them to encourage their children to participate in organized sports activities.
After all, physical activity is an important factor in building a healthy and strong body that can endure the hardships of life and minimizing the risk of serious chronic disease in adulthood. Thus, for most people, it is easy to find the motivation to drive children to practice, and to wake up early for swimming competitions or football tournaments during the weekends.
Childhood sports are fun
When starting sports at a young age, children are met with fun activities which are designed to provide them with the most important skills for their sport of choice. Organized sports for young children are largely noncompetitive, fun, and most reasonable coaches will explicitly demonstrate the equal worth of all teammates by providing praise to all participants and allow equal or fair amounts of playing time in games. This is why most children love to go to training, and it is why organized physical activity is one of the most important sources of physical activity for children.
It all changes in adolescence
Inevitably, children grow older, they reach puberty and most things change. Their bodies grow and become longer, stronger and more interesting in many ways. At the same time, a lot of adolescents do less physical activity [1, 2], and many drop out of their organized sports activities. While this trend is apparent for both boys and girls, it appears to be particularly problematic for girls, as they generally have lower levels of physical activity. Therefore a further decline throughout their teenage years leaves disproportionately many girls and young women insufficiently physically active.
Why do adolescents drop out?
Most adolescents have a wide range of interests and may have plenty of good reasons for why they do not want to, or cannot find time to participate in organized sports. First and foremost, most adolescents experience many new emotions and interests which may be both exciting and frustrating, but which may distract them from their participation in organized physical activity. Nevertheless, there are also important changes in the way the team sports are organized during adolescence, which may push even more adolescents away. Indeed, during adolescence, training generally shifts away from the focus on fun and play, and adopt a gradually more serious focus. Eventually, most sports activities for adolescents become oriented towards performance, winning, and developing talents which may advance to become elite athletes. While this may be very inspiring for those who have the capacity and/or the motivation to pursue a career in professional sports, it is important to keep in mind that most adolescents are not willing or able to participate at constantly higher levels. The majority of adolescents are actually relatively less fit, skilled, or motivated, compared to those who will become elite athletes, and during this phase, they are at risk for dropping out of sports, even if they really like the activity. This is a shame, for both adolescents and for sports clubs. The adolescents loose an important arena for socializing, physical activity and self–development. The sports clubs loose a large group of individuals who could be important resources in the club for economical purposes (being paying members and attracting sponsors), by coaching younger athletes, or filling other important roles in the organization.
The importance of fun and competence
In order to understand why this is happening, it may be useful to look at scientific studies which investigate children and adolescents motivation for physical activity. Not surprising, having fun, and feeling competent are some of the factors which are often reported as important motivating factors for participating in organized physical activity . This is good news, as it suggests that if organized sports could be organized in a way which was experienced as fun and competence building, then there is a good chance that dropout from organized sports could be reduced.
Is it worth it?
Unfortunately, training in adolescence may often have a quite stark contrast to the fun and interesting training in childhood, adolescents sports is characterized by limited spots on the team, competition for (limited) playing time, and punishment for failure (being benched). It is indeed difficult to blame a young person for withdrawing from organized sports if all they experience is struggle and negative social comparisons. Such things may be particularly difficult to cope with in a period of life when many are struggling to become comfortable in their changing bodies, with their sexuality and with the complicated and illogical social codes of teenage life.
What can sports clubs do?
While sports clubs have an obvious interest in developing talent and being competitive against their rivals, they are also an important contributor to public health by providing opportunities for physical activity and positive social interaction. It is my argument that most clubs are doing this very well for children, but less well for adolescents. Efforts to provide the less fit and less talented with an arena where they can enjoy the sport and work on their skills, would surely be a win-win. It is likely that this would have multiple positive consequences. More young people would be physically active doing the sport they love, and sports clubs would have more paying members, and a good conscience for contributing positively to the health of the next generation.
1.Kjønniksen L, Torsheim T, Wold B: Tracking of leisure-time physical activity during adolescence and young adulthood: a 10-year longitudinal study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2008, 5(1):69.
2.Biddle SJ, Gorely T, Stensel DJ: Health-enhancing physical activity and sedentary behaviour in children and adolescents. Journal of sports sciences 2004, 22(8):679-701.
3.Crane J, Temple V: A systematic review of dropout from organized sport among children and youth. European physical education review 2015, 21(1):114-131.