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.

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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.

Incentives matter: Equal play time in youth sports

Do young rec players play chaotically because they are inexperienced and immature or because of equal play time rules?

Like many youth sports coaches, I’ve discovered that there is no better reward than game time to promote the application of fundamentals and sportsmanship.

I “herded cats” while coaching in a rec league with equal play time rules. It was tough to teach the kids what seems like the simplest parts of the game and they repeated basic errors for far too long.

But, I hadn’t considered that it was the equal play time that caused it. I chalked it up the kids’ immaturity and inability to see the bigger picture consequences of their actions. For example, some players just didn’t seem to think they needed to mark-up, even though they had been repeatedly burned by leaving their man open.

Once we grew out of the equal play rules, I did what came natural and made lineup choices to reinforce the fundamentals.

If a player stopped doing the basics, like marking up, I would sub them out and let them know why. If someone applied the fundamentals — whether or not they were good at it — they stayed in longer. My philosophy was, win or lose, game time was meant for players to practice what we taught them.

I didn’t realize how effective this was until a recent kerfuffle on my team caused me to second guess those lineup choices and go back to equal play time rules.

A parent mistook my subbing order as ‘unfair punishment’ for his son missing practices. He left the game with his son and quit the team. I wasn’t punishing his son. I was giving the people who had attended the lesson the past few weeks a chance to practice it.

I’ve learned in the past that to teach team-play concepts, you need everyone on the field to have gone through the lesson or it’s harder for everyone to learn it. I’m sure that parent wouldn’t want his son taking a math test over a lesson he missed at school without first covering that lesson.

I found over the next couple of games, though, that I was a second guessing a lot of my lineup choices because I wanted to avoid another incident like that. I kept questioning, “how will his parent interpret this?” I found that second guessing distracting and stressful, so to avoid it I went back to equal play rules so no parents could complain that their kids weren’t getting play time.

Over the next few games I watched the team devolve from playing the best I’d ever seen them play, to playing the undisciplined, individual, sloppy playground ball that was characteristic in their rec years.

A parent made the comment — They looked like 6 year olds in rec. She was right.

That got me to thinking.

Not only had the kids quickly devolved from applying fundamentals that they had progressed on over the two previous seasons, but most became unresponsive to our coaching, as well.

That parent’s comment made me realize that they had lost the most effective incentive that encouraged them to apply fundamentals and listen to coaches — play time. They got to play whether they played like we were teaching or not, and over the course of a couple of games they (sub consciously) figured this out.

Game time became “theirs”. Rather than doing what was best for the team, they wanted to make something happen for their own glory during their time. And, of course, when half the team are being glory hounds, they don’t do the basic, boring stuff like marking-up and the team implodes.

This experience made me wonder if equal play rules are the main reason kids play sloppy in rec ball. Perhaps they’d learn the fundamentals faster by having the direct consequence of staying in the game or not based on their application of fundamentals.

So, the next time you see a sports team implode, consider that it may not be that the team is just performing poorly. Perhaps what you are seeing is a result of distorted incentives.

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.