Children, Junior and Youth Sport: Retention Messages

It is fairly well known that sport retention at youth level is a situation that needed to be addressed.

Childrens' Sport
Parents are often the key socialiser of children into sport participation (Lewko & Greendorfer,1988). For the U10s, parents initiate sport involvement. They take their children to sport development programs and provide their children the entry point into pathway programs in sports and the volume of informal sport participation in backyards, driveways, parks and courts that sustains children’s interest in sport as a form of play. Parents role model physical activity participation by their actions. Parents ignite, maintain and sustain children’s initiation into sport. At this age, parent physical activity behaviour relates to their children’s habitual physical activity behaviour (Yang, Telma & Laakso, 1996). Children want to play. Parents influence the direction of that activity into forms of play, like sport. Terms like ‘physical activity’ and ‘exercise’ tend to have little meaning for children, who have described them as terms adults use. ‘Play’ and ‘sport’ however, have powerful, sometimes contrasting meanings for children: contrasting in that children can see ‘play’ as controlled by them and ‘sport’ as controlled by adults (MacDougal, Schiller & Darbyshire, 2007). 

Two messages for sport engaging players U10.
  1. Sport should provide opportunities for children to play with purpose: that is, deliberate play as a means to promote physical activity accumulation and to develop movement ability by game design
  2. Players who report a high level of parental support tend to report greater enjoyment, so parents need to be encouraged to play informally and with purpose with their children, and parents need to be convinced of the benefit of sport participation for their child's physical, social, emotional and cognitive development

Junior Sport
Age 10-12 perceived and actual belief in competence or ability starts to become influential in participation motivation. Sport competence may underlie general self-esteem, in that a sense of self-worth or self-esteem is determined by specific competencies such as sport ability (Atkins, Johnson, Force & Petrie, 2015). Entering adolescence, low movement ability means more likely to be sedentary which means more likely to be overweight (Pill & Harvey, 2019).

Young people in this age bracket become increasing sensitive to equal treatment and perceived fairness. The relationship they have with the coach becomes a key determinant in participation. If they are not getting game time, they are more likely to go and do something else. If they think the coach ‘doesn’t like them’, they are more likely to go and do something else (Agnew, Pill & Drummond, 2016). The influence of parents as a motivator of participation begins to wane, but is still important. If the child does not want to go to training or games, it is hard to make them go or cajole them into going. By the time children reach high school age, they tend to have a fair idea of what physical activities they are 'good at' and enjoy, and so what they want to continue with.

Two messages for sport engaging players 10-12
  1. Play remains a motivator for participation. High volumes of play with purpose to assist players to learn and develop movement ability is essential to participation motivation
  2. Coaches become a key factor in sport participation and retention

Youth Sport (Adolescents)
Young people by this age have developed a sense of what and if they like sport, what sports, and what type of competition. While sport typically becomes increasingly competitive and serious from age 13, many young people still just want to play. From age 13, is when sport drop out begins to occur. It is this age group where there is the opportunity to think about re-setting sport participation. There may never be a better chance to create a more inclusive and viable sport environment. Sport must become more player-centred. That means thinking about provision for those who just want to gather and play, who find joy in the informal opportunity to play a game, as well as providing the traditional structure of train to play for those that want the joy of competition. I suggest programming that includes local games and informal sport. Don’t re-create an environment where the only option is a continuation of 'if you don’t turn up to training you don’t get a game'. Create alternative environments that re-capture the essence of ‘true sport’ – a group of people turn up, the numbers are equally divided, rules are discussed and modified to meet the ability of the group present, and a game gets played. Create a situation where more people want to go to training because training is enjoyable for a greater range of participatory interests.

The core of sport is play.

Coaches assume an increasingly important role in sport participation and retention at this age group. Their influence is in two areas – continuing the game develop of players with ambitions to play at higher levels; and keeping those interested in playing engaged by giving them game time and engagement that shows an interest in developing the person as well as the player. We call this athlete-centred coaching (Pill, 2019).

Two messages for sport engaging players 12-18
  1. Create opportunities for informal sport
  2. Elevate the standard of coaching 
If we want to continue to develop talent in sporting environments as a means of retaining youth in sport, let’s look at what Iceland did in football. It was recognised that to be more competitive on the world football stage the landscape of available and interested parents coaching at local clubs needed to change into qualified coaches. This requires investment to prioritise coach education and development to elevate the standard of coaching as strategic priority. Coaching is so central to youth sport retention that the elevation of the standard of coaching at community sport levels must be a strategic priority in the re-ignition of sport.

Mini-pitches were built mostly next to schools with the aim of giving more children the chance to play, for the sake of just playing and having 'fun', because accessibility was increased. 

(See Why has Icelandic football been so successful recently?)

In the short term – building a bridge back to sport
Schools offer an easily accessible  context for sport participation. Clubs and codes should therefore be strategic to think about how they can support schools to develop on-site intra-school sporting opportunities, like age group House and internal 'club' competitions. In Australia, I believe that the Sport Australia Sporting Schools platform provides an ideal vehicle for sport to pivot towards more opportunity for informal and formal on school campus sport opportunities. Make it as easy as possible for children and youth to access sport as a physical activity opportunity in the critical window of opportunity between 3.30pm and 'when parent/s get home' or arrive for after school care pick up at 5.30-6.30pm. Most primary schools and just about all secondary schools have good grounds for informal and formal sport provision, and yet in many cases students are 'kicked off' the campus as quickly as possible at te end of the school day or 'shuffled off' into after school care.

Longer term, there is the chance to think about sport being better than before for all children and youth through a different model of youth sport provision post Covid-19 restrictions. This is the opportunity provided to sport providers by the current context of sport abatement.


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