Sports·In Depth

No more joiners: Why kids are dropping out of sports

At a time when sports appear to be more popular than ever at the elite levels, participation rates across age groups continue to decline, according to a new study.

Focus on elite athletes may drive others away, say experts studying decline of sports participation

Children playing soccer on a grass pitch.
An obsession with separating out the best athletes, even at very young ages, could be driving many kids out of sports. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Whether young or old, rich or poor, Canadians are less active these days. In fact, according to a new study, our participation in sports is at an all-time low. But why? Are Canadians getting lazier? More complacent? More distracted?  In the first of two parts, we examine some of the problems with our approach to youth athletics. Part 2 looks at why adults are dropping out of sports.

At a time when sports appear to be more popular than ever at elite levels, participation rates across age groups continue to decline, according to a new study prepared by Vital Signs and the True Sport Foundation.

"Eighty-five per cent of Canadians agree that sport participation builds stronger communities, but at the same time we are seeing a dramatic drop in sport participation across the country," says Lee Rose of Vital Signs.

"We are trying to select out the 'talent' far, far too young.- John O'Sullivan, Changing the Game Project

Perhaps most troubling is that many kids are deciding to hang up their cleats or sneakers or skates at a young age.

By about age 13, many youngsters have already stepped away from an active life style. And it can't simply be chalked up to laziness, video games or "kids these days."

In fact, adults should get much of the blame. Most kids quit because they think they're not good enough — a by-product, experts say, of the hyper-competitive environment that lords over most youth sports.

"Just because a kid at age 10 isn't on a scholarship track doesn't mean there shouldn't be a place for them in the game," says John O'Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project, a Portland, Ore.-based organization trying to put the "play" back in "play ball."

Obsessed with the best

Nearly three quarters of Canadians — 73 per cent — agree, saying that children's sports have become too focused on winning at the exclusion of fun and fair play, according to the study.

And yet, our continued obsession with rooting out the "best" players at an early age is having a devastating effect, O'Sullivan says.

"The problem is we are trying to select out the 'talent' far, far too young, by starting highly tiered teams with cuts. We're saying these eight-year-olds are on the top team, so they get the best coaching and best facilities, and these other kids go down this house league track. "

O'Sullivan says this makes little sense, even if your only goal is to develop the top athletes.

There was a time when hockey was October to February. Now you have spring hockey and summer hockey and conditioning camps.- Karri Dawson, True Sport Foundation

"We cannot know at that age which kids will make it and which kids won't. What the science says is we are best off training as many kids as possible with the best coaches and best environment as long as we can, letting them grow and then seeing what happens.

"But to say we are only going to focus on these 10 or 12 kids is crazy."

Indeed, the desire to select and specialize can actually backfire on parents and coaches who have big dreams for their young athletes.

Karri Dawson is director of the True Sport Foundation, a national charitable organization dedicated to advancing sport in Canada and a partner on the study with Vital Signs.

She says parents should look at athletes on Canada's Olympic teams.

"Chances are they were multi-sport athletes," she says. "They played hockey in the winter, soccer in the summer and they participated in different sports at school. They cross-trained, and they exercised all kinds of different muscles and abilities that one day made them gifted at a particular sport."

Rising costs

Even if children are able to navigate the ultra-competitive landscape of youth sports, and even if they actually have the skills to compete at the highest level, it still may not be enough.

The Vital Signs/True Sport Foundation study finds that the rising cost of sports is also a barrier for many families. The most recent data shows that six out of 10 children from low-income households are active in sports, compared with 8.5 out of 10 from families with incomes over $80,000.

"Some people believe sports are no longer seasonal, that children should be participating all year long," says Dawson. "There was a time when hockey was October to February. Now you have spring hockey and summer hockey and conditioning camps. When you add it all up, it increases the cost of sport."

In addition to the socioeconomic gap, there's a gender element to Canada's sports squeeze. According to the study, one in three men in this country regularly participate in sports, compared with one in six women. That's partly because girls are less likely to be active when they are younger and more likely to drop out earlier than boys.

But there are ways to fix the problem, says Dawson.

Role models

"I think part of it is creating new sport experiences, creating programs that are specific for girls, that are interesting for girls," she says, "as opposed to trying to shoehorn them into programs they have no interest in or don't have friends participating in, things they don't see as fun."

Dawson also emphasizes the importance of role models who demonstrate physical activity at a young age.

"Statistics show that young girls are more likely to be active if their mom is active," she says.

Sounds straightforward. And, indeed, the key to keeping more Canadian kids active, say the authors behind the report, could be keeping things simple.

"It doesn't have to be the big hockey league or big, institutionalized sport," says Rose. "It can be as simple as a pick-up game of hockey or soccer in the park in the summer."

To do that, though, we may need to drop our obsession with being the best, says O'Sullivan.

"We're so scared that we aren't going to keep up that we're doing all this stuff that goes against everything we know about how to make sports better."