The below article summarizes the results from available research on the most significant reasons why kids quit playing sports and what leaders of youth sports programs can do to reduce drop-outs and attract more players!
Many adults who are actively involved in youth sports have heard the concerns expressed by youth sports organizations and other advocates about the current state of parent-operated youth sports leagues in US communities1. Most advocates share the belief that the serious deficiencies in these programs  are primarily a result of being organized and managed to fulfill the desires and ideals of the involved adults (i.e., winning games, elite player focus, etc.) instead of the needs and motives of most kids and  are the main reasons why far too many kids stop playing organized team sports at an early age.
“Every year more and more children are dropping out of sports – not because they don’t like to play – but because the system is failing them.”2
The scope of this drop-out problem is often described in the following terms:
- At least 30 million kids ages 6-17 play in organized sports programs each year (70%-75% of total)
- Approximately 70% of youth sports programs are operated by parent-interest groups
- Several million mostly untrained adults volunteer as coaches, administrators, officials or other roles
- About 35% of children drop-out of an organized sport program each year
- Over 50% stop playing a sport by the time they are age 12
- 70%-80% of youth ages 13 to 15 drop-out of organized sports programs entirely
Being a researcher, I was naturally curious about the facts behind the concern that many kids drop-out of organized team sports due to the way community leagues are operated. An in-depth investigation of the underlying basis for the claim found plenty personal observations, anecdotes, qualitative research, and compiled opinions of youth sports experts along with many references to a large survey program conducted over two decades ago.
Prior Research Findings
The most widely cited study on why kids stop playing organized team sports is called “Participation and Attrition Patterns in American Agency-sponsored and Interscholastic Sports.” It was conducted in 1988 by the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University with the support of Sporting Goods Manufacturer Association3. Approximately 8,000 boys and girls from 10 to 18 years of age in 17 US locations completed a survey on their participation in school and non-school sports programs.
Among the 10 to 14 year olds in this study, two fun-related reasons were found to be the dominant causes for dropping-out of a non-school sport program, followed by reasons related to time conflicts, coach deficiencies, and dislike for the pressures involved. It was also found that three changes would likely induce the greatest number of drop-outs to play the sport again: “Practices were more fun”, “Coaches understood players better” and “I could play more”.
A more recent survey conducted on behalf of Women’s Sports Foundation also addressed the sports drop-out subject4. For this study, 2,185 boys and girls from grades 3 to 12 and 863 parents of kids in those grades completed surveys.
Results from this 2008 study were very consistent with the findings of the earlier survey. Among the kids in grades 3 to 12 who did stop playing in an organized sport program, “Not having fun” was chosen most frequently from a list of 16 possible reasons, followed by time conflict, health and coach related reasons. This study did distinguish between kids who dropped a sport completely and those who left a sport but subsequently returned. The rank order of the chosen reasons does not change but kids who dropped a sport for health, studying and coach reasons were somewhat more likely to eventually return to play the sport than those who quit due to lack of fun and conflicts with other interests.
Parents of kids who completely stopped playing team sports were asked why that happened. The dominant reason given on an unaided basis for both sons and daughters was “no longer fun”. Some parents did mention time conflict reasons, and a few said their child was “not a good enough player” or the sport was “too competitive”.
YSQI’s Post-season Assessment Research
Youth Sports Quality Institute conducts confidential post-season surveys among parents of kids who play in community sports leagues. We compiled and analyzed a cross-section of 1,000 parent assessments across sports to identify any useful insights on why some players stop playing in a team sport program. Baseball & softball, basketball, flag & tackle football, hockey, lacrosse and soccer leagues are each in the cross-sectional mix.
The post-season assessments all included “Likelihood to play again next season” ratings and ratings on 12 league performance dimensions. About 60% of the age-appropriate kids in the database are extremely certain to play in the league again next season. The other 40% indicated some chance of dropping-out, with about 20% most unlikely to return to the program.
YSQI executed in-depth statistical analyses on the underlying relationships between the “play again” retention ratings and the league performance ratings across the cross-section of youth sports leagues. It has been proven that direct questions, like used in the prior research, can produce over- and under-statements of the causes and influences for some human behaviors, so this statistical analysis of post-season ratings is a useful alternative approach to identify the relative importance of several possible reasons for player defection.
Our analysis of the post-season assessment results confirms the following conclusions and widely held beliefs for parent-operated youth sports programs:
Amount of Fun – Proved to be the most decisive dimension on Likelihood to Play Again and second most decisive dimension behind leagues’ Overall Rating
Skill Development – Highly related to Likelihood to Play Again, Amount of Fun and Overall Rating
Team Coaches – One of the most decisive dimensions behind Skill Development and highly related to Likelihood to Play Again, Amount of Fun and Overall Rating
Play Time in Games – One of the most decisive dimensions behind Amount of Fun and highly related to Skill Development and Likelihood to Play Again
Our post-season assessment analysis also produced some strong insights which are not addressed in prior research and are not well recognized in the youth sports community:
Positions Played – One of the most decisive dimensions behind both Amount of Fun and Skill Development, and highly related to Likelihood to Play Again
League Management – Highly related to Likelihood to Play Again, Amount of Fun and Skill Development, and most decisive dimension behind leagues’ Overall Rating
Sportsmanship – Strongly related to Amount of Fun, Skill Development and Overall Rating, and one of the most decisive dimensions behind League Management rating
Team Balance – Strongly related to Skill Development and Overall Rating, and one the most decisive dimensions behind League Management rating
Number of Games – Strongly related to Amount of Fun and League Management rating
Quality of Field/Facility, Quality of Officiating and Overall Cost (fee etc) are all strongly related to League Management rating
The two most important “new” conclusions to take-away from this analysis for your youth sports program are the highly significant influence Positions Played in Games and League Management have on players’ retention, level of fun and skill development. These findings make it clear that today’s parents are able to recognize the impact these dimensions have on their child’s fun, skill development and, therefore, desire to play again. Much more than equal play time rules and coach training are required. Many parents realize that play time in games is important but not if it means spending all that time in positions which, for example, rarely touch the ball. They also know that good coaches are critical but insufficient if league directors provide unequal teams, too few season games, incompetent & no-show officials, or little if any control over poor sportsmanship-like behaviors by other coaches and players.
YSQI’s post-season assessment analysis also supports the advocates’ claim that many parent-operated youth sports leagues are deficient on one or more of the player-centric dimensions which drive kids’ desire to continue playing sports.
In aggregate across all included youth sports leagues:
- Highest # of positive ratings = Amount of Fun, Play Time and Team Coaches
- Average # of positive ratings = Positions Played, Sportsmanship and # of Games
- Lowest # of positive ratings = Skill Development, Quality of Officiating and Team Balance
Even the highest rated dimensions received non-positive ratings from a meaningful number of parents; corresponding with the players who are least likely to play again next season. Of course the ratings on these key dimensions do vary substantially from league to league along with the number of player defections each season. Every league assessed to date did have the opportunity to improve at least one important player-centric dimension.
Player-centric Solutions – League Governance
To reduce player defections from your league, and to improve your league’s performance on the key underlying player fun and skill development dimensions for the vast majority of your players, we recommend you first review your league’s mission, by-laws, officer duties, current processes, code of conduct, local rules and plans in light of the critical player-centric dimensions identified in this article. Prepare to modify accordingly.
Then take your review a step further to examine historical compliance with your league’s rules & regulations and consider the most effective ways to insure full compliance with player-centric processes and requirements. We’ve noticed serious deficiencies in leagues that do have the appropriate by-laws and processes in place on paper (i.e., goals, sportsmanship codes, play time & position rules, balanced team selection process, etc). While enforcement of player-centric processes and requirements can be a difficult task for volunteer league directors, it is one of their most important duties given the negative consequences of non-compliance.
League Improvement Process
Before you make any of the above governance modifications or other major changes for your league, you will need to conclusively identify the top priorities of the members of your league for your league. Otherwise, you risk making the wrong assumptions about their needs and motives, and your league will not be truly player-centric on the right dimensions. What the kids in your league want most from your league can be quite different from what the same or other kids want most from another program. This analysis has identified the most important performance dimensions for kids across sports programs, but their relative order and sub-elements can be very different from league to league depending, in large part, on how well each league currently performs on those dimensions.
There are various options you can consider to obtain valid and comprehensive guidance on the relative priorities of your league’s players. The key words are valid and comprehensive because the most essential requirements are obtaining accurate and conclusive guidance on the full range of player-centric dimensions. Most of the methods currently used by youth sports leagues do not produce valid guidance for one or more reasons. Even if conducted in a valid manner, some approaches are not that useful because they exclude many of the program dimensions which are proven to play a major role on player fun, development, and retention.
Becoming and remaining a truly player-centric and successful youth sports league requires more than a one-time assessment of performance and top priorities. The approach we recommend is basically an on-going three step process with your player-centric priorities updated at least annually based on an in-depth analysis of your league’s ratings as described earlier in this article. Since there is a practical limit on the number of improvements which can be successfully developed, implemented & well-executed at the same time, this process is also the best way to sequentially roll-out, assess and fine-tune league improvements over multiple seasons. Based on your player-centric goals …
- Assess Performance
- Set Priorities
- Execute Changes
- Repeat Periodically
There are several key questions which remain unanswered regarding retention of players in community team sports programs. Youth Sports Quality Institute is planning to conduct additional research and analyses in the near future on the following important topics:
What are the effects of the following factors on players’ interest and fun levels for a sport?
- Percentage of games their team won during the season
- Pre-season skill levels for the sport
- In-season skill improvement levels for the sport
In what ways are players’ top retention-related priorities different across the following groups?
- Youth sport groups (baseball, basketball, soccer, etc)
- Player age and gender groups
- Player skill level groups
FUN is definitely the #1 driver of continuing interest in organized youth sports programs according to all solid evidence gathered to date. An in-depth analysis of Youth Sports Quality Institute’s post-season league ratings confirms the widely-held beliefs that player skill development, team coaches and play time in games also have strong influence on continuing player interest for playing in a community sports program (and on player fun). Analysis of the post-season ratings also identified the highly significant impact of lesser-known performance dimensions on players’ interest in returning to a team sport program; particularly positions played in games and general program management deliverables including number of games played during the season, equality of teams in the program, quality of officiating at games, and good sportsmanship displayed by all players and coaches (not just by their team).
Youth sports leaders who wish their league to be truly player-centric and even more fulfilling and successful going forward must integrate these decisive player motives and influences into the basic fabric of their governance model, operations, and season-to-season improvement processes. But first the top priorities and specific requirements among each league’s own members must be precisely identified because the order of priorities can and do vary from league to league.
False assumptions, adult-centered opinions and invalid feedback systems were what led numerous parent-operated leagues to their current deficiencies which, in turn, caused too many players to drop-out and others to never join as a result of negative comments from their friends and neighbors. It really isn’t that difficult or costly to turn a youth sports league into a player-centric program once leaders make a strong commitment to do so. It is well worth the extra effort to insure that the vast majority of players, adult volunteers and other parents realize more positive and beneficial experiences.
About the Author: Ed Goodwin, the Founder of Youth Sports Quality Institute, has 30 years of hands-on experience providing research & analysis services which help solve a variety of customer-related challenges for major corporations and, since 2004, youth sports organizations. He has coached various sports teams for 20+ years and served for several years as Director of a NFL Youth Flag Football league where he helped identify and implement player-centric policies and practices to rapidly grow the program.
1 Links to several active organizations and advocates in the youth sports quality field, and the below and other materials, may be found at www.ysqi.org/ysqi_Resources.html. See www.ysqi.org/ysqi_Quality.html for a summary of their primary concerns.
2 Quote taken from Conclusions section in “Recommendations for Communities” presented by National Alliance for Youth Sports and National Recreation & Park Association
3 Results published by Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development in an article titled “Overview of Youth Sports Programs in the United States” by Vern Seefeldt and others.
4 Report called “Go Out and Play: Youth Sports in America” from Women’s Sports Foundation (2008).
Contact: Ed Goodwin at firstname.lastname@example.org