According to Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, a child’s No. 1 reason for playing sports is to “have fun.” Yet by the time they are 13 years old, 70 percent have dropped out of team sports.
Reading this article in the NZ Herald, on why kids give up sports so early gave me pause. It wasn’t so surprising or shocking to me that kids stopped play sport at the age of 13. Certainly, in New Zealand this is when kids hit high school and the game very much changes. If primary school was about participation, and basic skills, then intermediate upped the ante towards specialism. My experience with and N of 1, was that intermediate still presented opportunities for social sport, for D and E teams, that continued to encourage participation and team work, but there was very much a feeling that this was the beginning of the end.
High School sports seem to be about being exceptional and there is not much room for the mediocre. There is no playing for fun, that dies at intermediate. And I wonder if it ever comes back? My sport finished at high school. I was in school teams for Hockey and Netball but I was a long way from good at either of these things. But I continued to be part of because, my friends were doing it and it was an enjoyable way to spend the time. I also did well at rounders, swimming, occasionally shotput and discus. This set me up for a lifelong appreciation of exercise. I have never gone for more than a few years without being involved in some spirit lifting activity. I know that exercise and sport is than winning, and even a bad game, or a bad workout is good for the body, and the resilience and the mental health.
Turning children off sport so early is counterproductive. Sure, schools might field the best sports teams, and collect the accolades and the national caps, but in their wake are a crowd of young people missing out on the transformative power of exercise, and the enduring benefits it offers.
The kids are stopping sport because it’s no longer fun.
Why can’t it be fun at that age? Or any age? Why can’t it be uselessly kicking a ball about and failing to get a ball over the net in every service game at tennis? Getting your exercise by your opponent being a much better server than you. Sure, many people are disciplined to just exercise because they know it is good for them. The achievement and sense of competence is their reward. For others of us, the reward is the beer after, the belly laugh with friends, the shared experience, or simple fun of it all. And, the bonus of being crap, and having fun? Your body doesn’t care! It gets benefits anyway.
My daughter is a bit like me. A jack of all trades. A social player, she thwarts her opponents with her enthusiastic chatter. She is relational , and cares about her teams that she plays in. She’s not A grade but she’s a good sport, yet she can’t do sport at school as she’s not good enough for the good teams. No kid wants to let their team down. There is so much stigma attached to that.
My girl is also like me in that she is a bit of a magpie. She loves shiny new things. So in the time that I have known her she has tried her hand at athletics, waka ama, swimming, surf life saving, ice skating, hockey and netball. She’s over all of them. As I said before, she’s a generalist, not a specialist. She’ll try anything once. This is why CrossFit has been really good for her.
She tried it out one holidays. I wasn’t sure if it would be her thing, but of course she loved it. Which was a shame as it’s really expensive. I was hesitant about whether to pay until she said “Mum, for the first time I feel good at something. I thought I was no good but it turns out I’m strong!”. Crossfit gave her a chance to discover her strengths. The no bull approach to fitness is great for a teen. She knows that she goes there to work but she also gets tremendous support from her coach and her group. The workouts are varied, which works well for these media affected teens and their short attention spans. They are also challenging which helps build their sense of mastery, essential for teen development. Hanging with positive peers that celebrate her successes. Crossfit has inspired her and given her confidence in her strength and her abilities. This has not been available to her in school sport which seems to exist to undermine the confidence of teens rather than to inspire them.
Schools need to adopt a general preparedness approach to education that goes beyond books. Encouraging sport for all so that kids can maintain a lifelong relationship with exercise that supports both their physical and mental health. Oh, and their capacity for fun.