It’s okay that kids quit sports

In this article on Changing the Game Project (dot com), an organization trying to breathe sanity back into youth sports, the author goes over some reasons why kids quit sports and things that can be done to help.

As a youth coach, I’ve had some parents forward this article to me when they disagreed with my coaching.

Here is a snippet from the article:

As I have stated here many times, 70% of children are dropping out of organized sports by the age of 13. Whenever I mention this sad statistic, people come out of the wood work saying that it’s only the kids who aren’t good enough to play that quit. They say it’s an age where school, jobs and other interests take precedence. These things are true and contribute to a part of the dropout rate, but they are not the entire picture.

We don’t simply lose the kids who cannot make varsity; we lose many of the best athletes on our teams.

One problem is that the author, John O’Sullivan, doesn’t quantify how much these other factors contribute to the dropout rate or how many of the best athletes quit.

Basic math tells us that the vast majority of kids who dropout are the kids that cannot make varsity. If only the top 20% of kids make the varsity team, that means 80% don’t. If only the top 5% of the high school athletes make a college team, 95% don’t.

In my experience, around ages 11 – 14 kids come to one of a few reality checks.

They may realize that even being average in a sport takes work they aren’t willing to put in, because they simply don’t enjoy the sport enough or they’d rather be doing something else with that time.

Or, they come to understand the odds of them becoming a college or pro players is really low.

Even some of the ‘best’ quit, because they might be at the bottom of the top 20%. They’re better than 80%, but they don’t get a lot of play time, so they decide that getting a job to earn some money is more worth it than riding the bench. That’s basic opportunity cost.

I appreciate O’Sullivan’s efforts to want to take adult toxicity out of youth sports. That’s a worthy effort that doesn’t need to be tied to improving the dropout rate.

There’s nothing wrong with a 70% sports dropout rate by age 13. I bet that has been consistent for decades (and possibly has decreased as there are more ‘competitive’ sports clubs out there that provide alternatives to high school sports) and it tracks the winnowing of the field to make the cut for high school, college and pro.

If efforts to keep kids playing sports longer work, it may have some ill consequences — mainly, keeping kids from doing other things that may be more worth their while.

Winning and Losing Part I

As a parent and a coach of youth sports, I’ve learned a few things about winning and losing over the last several years.

For example, wins and losses are often not what they appear to be. And, for many parents too much of their own ego depends on whether their kids win or lose.

Wins and losses can be great teachers, but they can be deceiving, too. Drawing the right lessons can be a challenge. Adults are excellent at drawing the wrong lessons.

It’s easy to convince yourself that your team is really good and has made a lot of progress after beating a weaker opponent. I’ve done it. I’ve seen parents do it. I’ve seen pro teams do it.

It is then a let down when you face a superior team and find out that you’re not quite ready for the college scouts just yet.

But, I think it’s important to understand that there’s much more that goes into a win or loss — especially in youth sports — than whether you’re good or not.

One factor, for example, is the relative age effect, which I wrote about in this post. It’s the idea that kids born closer to the age cutoff tend to do better because they have a few extra months of body development.

I had my doubts whether it really existed. Though, it seems there is plenty of evidence for it and now I believe it matches with my personal experience.

As I’ve watched a group of kids age over a few years (admittedly small sample size), I noticed that the kids born closer to the age cutoff tend to dominate — at least, physically. But, I still had my doubts.

The most convincing evidence for me, though, was when we played younger teams. Our B/C-players suddenly looked very good against players that they had the same age advantage over as the A players on our team had on them.

Many wins and losses in youth sports leagues are nothing more than an age mismatch.

Merit or Relative Age Effect?

From Seth Godin’s blog: The wasteful fraud of sorting for youth meritocracy:

Ask the well-meaning coaches and teachers running the tryouts and choosing who gets to play, ask them who gets on stage and who gets fast tracked, and they’ll explain that life is a meritocracy, and it’s essential to teach kids that they’re about to enter a world where people get picked based on performance.

Or, they might point out that their job is to win, to put on a great show, to entertain the parents with the best performance they can create.

This, all of this, is sort of dangerous, unhelpful and nonsensical.

I explored this in my post, The Great Participation Trophy Debate.

I agree. Most kid sports, even at the beginning levels, is structured to entertain parents, and like it or not, select on ‘merit’ rather than teach the kids and have fun.

As Gladwell points out, this quest for wins really sorts out the relative age effect, rather than true merit.

I wonder how many potential stars — or just run of the mill good players — this chases away before they realize that the primary reason they weren’t as good as their teammates is because their teammates had several crucial months of development on them.

And, the reason they never got much of a chance to develop was because too few youth coaches do their job and give them chances to improve.

Equal play time in youth sports?

Do young rec players play chaotically because they are kids or because of equal play time rules?

I “herded cats” while coaching in a rec league with equal play time rules. Rec ball is known for sloppy play. Like most, I chalked it up to the kids being young and beginners.

But, I hadn’t considered that equal play time may be a bigger part of it.

When we moved to competitive soccer, I began subbing players out who weren’t working on the fundamentals and team tactics we were teaching them in practice. I’d let them know what I saw, remind them what they should be doing instead and then put them back in at the next chance. That seemed like a competitive coachy thing to do.

I didn’t intend it as reward and punishment. I just thought it would be better than yelingl across the field, which rarely seemed to work. I figured they couldn’t hear me.

It didn’t take long and the players were telling me why I subbed them before I could say anything. “I was just kicking the ball, wasn’t I?” I thought that was awesome. I have never seen anything else get young kids to become aware of how they were playing like that.

But, I truly didn’t realize how effective this was until after a parent’s misunderstanding about how I subbed caused me to go back to equal play time to keep the peace. He thought I was punishing his child and thought they were too young to be punished.

Over the next few games the team devolved from playing their best. A parent asked, What’s happening they looked like 6 year olds in rec again?

Indeed.

That got me to thinking. What had changed? Equal play time.

What incentive do they have to work on what we taught if they got all the play time they wanted?

I went back to my subbing routine and they were playing well again within a couple games.

When game time became an entitlement, rather than doing what was best for the team, they became glory hounds or reverted back to their impulse just to kick the ball randomly.

I’ll add that over the years I coached I tried dozens of things to motivate the kids and that’s the only thing that did. 

This experience made me wonder if equal play time is a bigger cause for why rec ball is so sloppy.

Now, I’m not saying this is THE answer. This is a sample size of one, so it may not be repeatable. But, if you find yourself herding cats, give it a try and see if it works. But, also, make sure the parents buy off. I thought mine had, but when push came to shove a couple of them were bothered to see their kid being subbed out and didn’t bother to notice how quickly they were improving.

A few other things I’ll say about this…

I never sensed from the kids that it bothered them. The feedback I’d give them was low-key and calm. “Remember, I said I wanted you to try to control the ball and do something with it, like dribble to space or find a pass, right? What were you doing?” “I was just kicking it.” “Okay. Now get back in there and work on controlling the ball.”

When I think back on it, I could think of a few reasons why it worked well.

Kids love play time. Even the kids who aren’t that into soccer love to be in the game. So, it makes sense that was such a strong motivator.

The feedback was immediate. It didn’t wait until half-time, post game or the next practice when the message could get lost in translation. The players were receiving a consequence and feedback tied directly to their actions in real- time and they had full control of it. 

The kids who did what we were working on naturally got more play time because they didn’t need to be subbed off and they seemed to dig that.

This wasn’t about performance and winning. In fact, the strongest players were often the ones being subbed off more because they were the ones more likely to go off script.

I was always clear about what I was looking for in the game and when I would sub them, so it wouldn’t leave the kids guessing.

I was also clear that if they were working on these things, even if they weren’t doing them well, I wouldn’t sub them out. I’d rather lose by working on things that will make us a better than win by doing things that won’t.

The only downside was when they were all doing well, I still had to sub sometimes to get all the players in, so they did come off the field asking why they had been subbed. I was honest: “You were doing great! But, I do need to get everyone in the game.” Or, “Looks like you just need to catch your breath.”

Here’s about 90% of what I subbed players off for:

Just kicking the ball, rather than controlling it and trying to set up a good ball for the team with a purposeful dribble or pass. This one I thought was important to transition them from chasing and random kicking to feeling comfortable with the ball at their feet under pressure.

Diving in on the tackle, instead of slowing the attacker down first and then going for the ball with the full body.

Not marking the other team’s most dangerous scoring threat. This was responsible for another 20-30% of the goals against.

Nature vs nurture, signals v causes

Criticism of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. From it:

…a study published last May in the journal of Intelligence by Hambrick and colleagues suggested that practice explains only about a third of success among musician and chess masters.

No duh. I have a couple thoughts. First, these studies are usually based on backward-looking estimates of time spent in ‘deliberate’ practice, which may not be accurate.

Second, what’s ‘deliberate’ practice? Seems like that could mean a lot of things and one person’s ‘deliberate’ practice may look much different from someone else’s.

Of course, other factors come into play also. After reading about the 10,000 hour rule, I didn’t think I could become Bill Gates or Michael Jordan simply by putting in my 10,000 hours, but it certainly put a different perspective on their success.

A study linked in the above article claims that we should look at factors other than amount of deliberate practice to explain the difference between professional and non-professional soccer players, like the amount of good coaching they received at a young age.

No duh. For the signal vs. causes tag, it seems like the amount of good coaching they received at a young age could be function of the ability the players were showing at that age.

In my experience, even with players at young ages, coaches interested in winning records recruit the best players, so it’s no surprise that they received what appears to be good coaching at a young age, but I’m not convinced that’s the true difference maker.

Certainly, I think good coaches can have an effect, but when you are already a good player and you get on a team with good players, you’re going to have a lot more good deliberate practice and experience on your side.

The Great Participation Trophy Debate

The participation trophy debate was briefly mentioned in the EconTalk podcast linked to in the previous post.

Those for participation trophies think it’s good for self-esteem. Those against say it doesn’t prepare kids to deal with failure.

I have a third view to consider: We put too much emphasis on youth sports.

Why do we care so much about the life lessons of youth sports and not so much about life lessons learned from other childhood endeavors, like playing video games?

Has anyone ever argued that the high trial-and-error failure rate in video games hurts a child’s self-esteem? No. Has anyone argued that winning or losing a video game helps kids deal with failure? No.

Yet, we all instinctively know a simple truth about video games: The more a kid plays them, the better he will get.

Play your kid in her favorite video game and she’ll wipe the floor with you. That’s because she has more trial-and-error experience at it than you.

That experience came with no pressure and no stakes. She didn’t have coaches and parents calling out their every mistake from a sideline. If she lost a game, she just started over, tried a different approach and eventually learned what works.

Yet, we don’t translate that instinct to youth sports. Parents and coaches hope for mastery, without recognizing how little time the child has had to master it, especially in unstructured, low pressure, low stakes ways.

Youth sports in the U.S. use to be viewed by parents more like video games are now. In some countries, they still are. Guys I play soccer with, who came to the U.S. from South America and Europe, tell me they spent a great deal of time playing soccer in their home countries and their parents nagged them to do something more productive, just like how U.S. parents nag their kids to put down the video games.

When I was a kid, the way we learned sports was different than today. It was a lot more like how kids these days learn to play video games — lots of low pressure, low stakes play. Why? Because parents didn’t care as much about sports then.

We had much more unstructured play where we played with family and friends. We played more often with older and younger kids, the older ones taught us the tricks of the trade, then we passed those on to younger kids.

We got creative and made up our own games and rules, a lot of times to help compensate for imbalances of playing with different ages and abilities.

The ratio of time spent in low pressure, low stakes unstructured play to the high pressure, organized play was much higher than today.

I played a lot of driveway basketball, mainly because I got bored watching I Love Lucy reruns. I won no basketball scholarships, nor was I scouted by the NBA and I’m usually the last picked at just about any pickup game.

But, if I went to a country where they don’t grow up playing driveway basketball, the locals may be as amazed with my unconscious fade-away jumpers as I am with the soccer skills my friends from Europe and South America display.

Even when we played organized teams as kids, it wasn’t a major event. Every parent didn’t go to every game. Often, parents took turns carting the kids to the game. We often didn’t have large crowds to witness our losses and we didn’t get ear fulls on the ride home for the mistakes we made in the game. Nor do I remember getting snacks.

And, that was okay. Playing was more for us kids and less about pleasing parents and grandparents. They just wanted us to stay in school and out of trouble. We weren’t worried about college scholarships, going pro or being sports prodigies.

I think that’s the major thing that has changed. Now, sports is more about the parents. I hear a lot of parents humble-brag about their kids playing “competitive” or “travel” sports, as if that means something. It does mean something. It means you are paying a lot more than the previous generation to have your child be mediocre at sports.

If you have a strong stance on the participation trophy debate, it may be a sign that you care about youth sports more than is healthy. Think about why you care more about that than you do your child’s video game or Lego building achievements.

Update: Mike M requested that I add the link to a previous discussion about what college athletes said their parents said to them. Here it is: Signals v causes in youth sports.

Post Note: Zemanta suggested the related article below about i9 Sports. I love this quote from the article:

Youth sports have become adult sports played by kids. Adults have sucked the fun out of youth sports, and our goal is to put fun back to the center.

 

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Signals v causes in youth sports

A Facebook friend liked this article about youth sports and what parents should say to kids when they play. I found that article, the article it references and the discussion in the comments interesting — especially because I’ve been coaching a youth sports team for a few years.

I find the youth sports scene interesting for a number of reasons. One reason is that cause and effect of success and failure is hard to determine, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. The articles above are good examples.

They say college athletes said their parents just told them that they like watching them play. 

Is that a signal or a cause? The articles make it sound like a cause.

But, it’s likely that most college athletes were excelling in their sport from an early age due to natural physical advantages, above average interest in learning the sport, some competitive grit and/or environmental factors that may have provided them with multiple times more exposure to the sport than the average kid.

It’s easier to say “I just like to watch you play” to someone who is in the top 5% of their age group than to somebody who is in the middle or bottom.

Also, I’m sure many parents whose kids didn’t make a college or high school team said that, too. I’d guess that for every set of parents of a college athlete who said that, there are ten sets of parents of non-college athletes who said the same. Why didn’t it work for them?

My parents usually said something like that. They’d usually ask if I had fun and tried my best. I didn’t play high school or college athletics. And, I’m doing okay. As near as I can tell, I’m doing about as okay as many who did play high school and college sports.

Sports

For a change of pace, on this week’s EconTalk podcast Russ Roberts interviews David Epstein about his book, The Sports Gene. It is worth a listen.

I don’t recall there being a boring part to it and I think it will have wide appeal for sports fans, anybody who has played sports or just ran around the yard playing tag and anybody with kids who are interested or not interested in sports.

I learned things about what my body type is well-suited for that fits with my experience. You might, too.

It has lots of good discussion on nature/nurture, gaining 10,000 hours of deliberate experience and what we think we know about what makes us better at something isn’t necessarily true.

There was also some debunking on what we think makes a good hitter in baseball. Perhaps my micro teacher gave up too soon. He played in the minors and said he decided to quit when a fellow batter, who happened to be a good hitter, told him the secret was watching the ball to see where the spot was.

It turns out that nobody quite has reflexes for that. It’s more about reading visual cues of the wind up and release and projecting the path of the ball based on that.

That reminds me of a sports science show that tested something similar with soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo. They shut the lights out as soon as someone kicked a ball across the net to see if he could still play it into the net. He could. Why? Because of experience. He’s reacted to a ball tens if not hundreds of thousands of times and his body has a good sense of the path of the ball based on what he sees from the kick.

I wonder how many players quit too soon because some player told them something untrue like that. Perhaps the answer is more about practice than anything.