My son hung up his soccer cleats at age 7. Looking back, it seems a ridiculously young age for a kid to give up on a sport. His slow slide away actually started the previous fall when Zachary was tapped in house league and invited to join his club’s off-season “development” training.Through that following winter, I watched as my tall, athletic and happy-go-lucky guy turned pale, pinched and self-conscious. The endless drills, constant assessment, late nights and swift rounds of cuts for boys who didn’t measure up, the pressure kept building. “Why do I have to go!!??” he asked many nights as we tried to cram in commuting, homework and dinner before a 90-minute soccer practice. Sound familiar?
Just before the regular season began, which would have entailed four soccer activities per week plus tournaments, Zach asked to quit. After some thought, my husband and I agreed.
In academic terms, this is an example of “early specialization”. Jessica Fraser-Thomas, PhD, is an assistant professor at Toronto’s York University and has been studying youth sport. She says sport governing bodies are moving more and more towards models of early year-round deliberate practice, at younger and younger ages.
The work of psychologist Anders Ericsson and writer Malcolm Gladwell has played a role here, Jessica adds. “There’s this idea that to be good at anything or to become an expert you need to do 10,000 hours of deliberate practice – and you better get started young because otherwise you’ll never make it.” For most kids though, says Jessica, this strategy is a bust. “Yes that can lead to expert development, but at what cost? How many kids are we losing from a motivational and an enjoyment perspective along that path? Huge, huge numbers.”
Statistics confirm a drop. While kids’ sports participation burgeoned post-war and through the 1980s, 2008 StatsCan figures show between 1992 and 2005 boys’ sports participation declined from 66 percent to 56 percent and girls’ from 49 percent to 45 percent.
Other trends have been noted, too. StatsCan shows participation rates are lowest among lower income households at 44 percent. And Jennifer Cowie Bonne, CEO of Active Healthy Kids Canada, sees another, “notable” drop around age 12. Some sports show even steeper declines, particularly baseball and swimming (see sidebar at right).
Then there’s hockey. An April 2014 Maclean’s article noted, “Since 2009, enrolment in tyke through atom (ages five through 10) has slid by about 6,300 players, or three percent, while peewee, bantam and midget enrolment has dropped off by 7.4 percent.”
Why exactly are kids walking away? Research has noted increasing costs, competing family demands, school work and the ever-present lure of screens. There may also be displeasure around how little exercise kids actually get with organized sports. As Jessica says, we have many Canadian kids in sports “and only seven percent meet recommended daily activity guidelines. There’s obviously something wrong.”
But to most observers, another issue looms. Mark Hyman, author of Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, writes that adults are messing things up, moving from a “core mission of providing healthy, safe and character-building recreation” and turning “sports for children into a de facto professional league.” With seven-year-olds being scouted and handed brutal practice schedules, too often the message for kids is performance and winning above all.
Elizabeth Grundon coaches her seven-year-old daughter’s soccer team in Toronto. And last year, when she couldn’t get kids to play goalie or defense she discovered parents were telling them not to let the coach put them in defense because they wanted their kids to score goals. “So then I had to do an announcement before a game and send out an email basically saying to the parents, this is a team sport, everybody needs to play every position. We cannot start a game without a goalie and defense.”
Hockey has famously (or infamously) become mired in the same parental interference. Adults have become so invested in tournament outcomes and ice time distribution of seven-year-olds that the sport has fallen prey to “recurring cycles of hostility.” The Maclean’s article noted that in the six weeks prior to publication, at least three incidents of physical altercations between adults at minor hockey events had occurred and bubbled up in the media.
That’s not to say there aren't attempts at change. Toronto hockey mom Anne Henry sees some benefits flowing already. When her league brought in a ‘no checking’ rule a few years ago for house league and select hockey players of all ages, she says, “We cheered. Suddenly there were fewer kids getting hurt and the level of play improved.” She says some teams though, continued “checking when the ref wasn’t looking, or ‘accidentally’ slamming opposing players into the boards. It seems that some teams just have a culture of fighting. We would hear the parents yelling ‘hit’em!’ throughout the game and coaches yelling at the kids in their dressing rooms, encouraging them to hit or ‘take’em out.’”
Hockey Canada estimates that these types of players make up about two percent of amateur hockey. From my experience that sounds about right, a few bad apples that can sometimes spoil the good experiences and the dedicated work of legions of volunteers.
So what to do if you’re unhappy about a practice schedule, or that parent shouting abuse at your daughter’s last hockey game? Speak up, says Jennifer. “If your child is feeling emotionally or physically unsafe you should intervene. It’s very important to communicate that to a sport organization so that they know and can address.” Also, every child is different. If a program isn’t a good fit, she adds, “find something that matches where your child is at.”
In our case, while early specialization turned our son off soccer, his fervour for other sports blossomed. Fast forward to today and at 10, Zach is happily involved in a slew of organized sports including baseball, hockey, ball hockey, football, track and field, volleyball and swimming. I’m particularly happy about this since research links kids’ sport participation with physical health, psychosocial and motor skill development.
Jennifer Jones, a Toronto mother of three places a similar value on sports: “I believe it makes you a better student if your body’s healthy and if you're physically active. I think it makes you manage your time really well, teaches you how to set goals, how to work towards those, how to deal with failures.” She even hopes sports might keep her kids out of trouble in high school.
If your family plan also includes organized sports, here’s the latest thinking on how to keep kids engaged, developing and happy.
Among Canadian sport bodies, the biggest buzz these days is the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model. According to Canadian Sport for Life, “LTAD is designed to maintain participation, increase results, and protect our athletes.”
While LTAD has many components (see sidebar at right), the general emphasis is on fun, movement, skills development and lifelong participation. It also recommends delaying specialization until around age 12 – even for kids on an elite track.
“Part of that LTAD model is the sense of developing physical literacy,” adds Jennifer Cowie Bonne. Sport programs should teach “skills and abilities that a kid will need to participate for life.”
In this vein, Jessica has done some well-received research with competitive swimmers – comparing one group who dropped out between ages 10 to 17 and a matched group still competing. Strikingly, Jessica found that dropouts:
started dry land training two years earlier;
swam for fun only half as much (in pools or at the cottage for example);
had fewer outside interests;
took less time off;
started competing about one year earlier;
were less likely to have a best friend in the group.
We're gaining so much knowledge on what discourages kids, and parents will notice more LTAD-inspired measures at playing fields soon.
Take Soccer Canada’s removal of scorekeeping from younger kids’ games. While some paint this as over-coddling, it’s really more about lowering intensity among the adults. As Elizabeth explains, while the league doesn’t do formal record-keeping with her seven-year-olds the “kids know who wins and who loses.”
The Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model describes developmental milestones for athletes at specific ages and stages. Some key tenets are movement and fun, physical literacy, later specialization and lifelong participation. Many sports organizations, including Soccer Canada and Baseball Canada, have been integrating LTAD models into their programs:
Stage 1: Active Start (0-6 years) – Through daily activity and unstructured play, develop the “ABCs” of movement: Agility, Balance, Coordination and Speed.
Stage 2: FUNdamental (girls 6-8, boys 6-9) – Further develop fundamental movement skills in a fun and challenging multi-sport environment with minimal formal competition.
Stage 3: Learn to Train (girls 8-11, boys 9-12) – Begin training with more formalized methods but keep the emphasis on practising general sports skills rather than competition.
Stage 4: Train to Train (girls 11-15, boys 12-16) – Build an aerobic base and consolidate sport-specific skills. Increased training hours are required.
Stage 5: Train to Compete (girls 15–21, boys 16–23) – Choose one sport and solidify sport-specific skills and physical capacities. The aim is to compete in national/international events.
Stage 6: Train to Win (girls 18+, boys 19+) – Become a full-time athlete. Train to maximize and maintain competitive performance at the highest level.
Stage 7: Active for Life. This is the goal for all Canadians, to stay active by participating in competitive or recreational sports or physical activities. Adapted from CanadianSportForLife.ca
For parents, understanding LTAD can also help you buck a strong sports culture. For example, even though Jennifer’s kids are on a competitive swimming track, she’s able to think critically. She dislikes “this big movement to identify kids early on and move them up” and believes the kids are over-trained. She’s told her kids’ coaches they might not make every practice. “I view my role as being more of a protector. So I’m very much like, ‘You don’t want to go to practice today because you’re tired? Fine.’ I leave it up to them.”
Parents who go beyond this parental role, who try to be coach and drive everything, tend to have the kids who are coming to practice crying, says Jennifer. “They don’t want to be there and the parents are forcing them to be there, and those kids have all dropped out.”
So what if your child wants to quit a sport? Probably every child asks at some point, and this is a key juncture for parents – we hate to see our kids as quitters. But before age 10, Jessica asks, “Why are we even calling it drop out? I mean kids should just be dabbling and playing.”
With older, more invested kids, Jessica recalls her study. “Everybody – even those who were really engaged – considered dropping out at one time.” But kids who persisted, “had this open communication, parents who provided support, as opposed to being directive, and engaged the kid to communicate what was going on.”
Jennifer Cowie Bonne advises listening and finding a solution together. “Allow your child to voice an opinion about why they want to drop out. It may be that they do feel very overloaded. They may have pressures that they’re trying to juggle and they just need a break.” Or your child might have an issue with a coach or another athlete.
In our case, listening to our son and offering tons of alternatives have helped him move beyond his early negative associations. In fact, after a couple years off, Zach has taken up soccer again casually, playing up to three times a day at school during lunch or recess. First he told me firmly, “I only want to play for fun.” But recently he confessed with a grin, “Mom, next year I want to sign up for soccer again. I love it!”
Connie Jeske Crane lives in Toronto with her husband and 10-year-old sports-mad son Zachary.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2014.