Burnout: it’s a serious problem.
Kids are dropping out of youth sports at astronomical rates and it is becoming a huge epidemic as they go into adult hood. For a variety of reasons, kids no longer want to participate in sports, and they lose the opportunity to develop movement skills and habits that will help them live long and healthy lives as they grow older.
But to figure out why kids are quitting sports, we need to first look at why kids started playing sports in the first place.
So why do kids play sports? Well it’s a great question, and to some, the answer might be surprising – Kids play sports to have FUN! That was the number 1 reason kids gave when asked why they played sports according to Dr. RR Goyakla Apache.
The rest of the list goes as follows:
- To have fun
- To improve their skills
- To be with friends
- To do something they’re good at
- For the excitement of competition
- To become physically fit
- For the challenge of competition
- To lean new skills
- To succeed or win
Notice how winning is 9th? We will talk about that more later, and how it relates to burnout, but for now, let’s focus more on the positives.
1. Kids Play to Have Fun
The number one reason kids play sports is to play games that are fun. Kids want to have fun when they are playing sports. This is important to note because when delivering your SNYB lessons, you want to deliver them in a way that is FUN and engaging for everyone.
This can be a major challenge at times, but as coaches, we need to do our best to bring energy to every training session and ensure that the games and drills you do, are based on the goal of having fun.
This is why we encourage coaches to adopt a games approach to their teaching. For instance, rather than having your players do layup lines, try doing a full-court layup relay instead! You get the same outcomes as the layup lines, but in a game-like situation!
2. Kids Play to Improve Their Skills
Self improvement. Who doesn’t want to get better when they practice? This might seem like a no-brainer, but in reality it might not be that obvious to some coaches. Often times, coaches will do drills that don’t actually help their players improve, but are geared towards them trying to win.
Take for example a zone defense. We know that it is tougher to beat five players than it is to beat just one. When you’re playing against a zone defense, that is exactly what you’re trying to do, especially at the youth level. Breaking a zone requires strategy and decision making – skills that youth athletes haven’t yet developed . As a result, youth teams who play a zone defense tend to find success, but at what cost? In the long run, those athletes who played in a zone are robbed of the opportunity to become better one on one defenders – an important skill at higher levels of basketball.
Look at the NBA? How many teams play a zone? How about players who played zone defense in College, how many of them turned out to be good defenders at the next level?With SNYB, every drill and game we do is designed for players to improve their skills individually, but also understand how to apply it in a game situation and with a team.
3. Kids Play to Be With Friends
Team sports have the added benefit of, just that, playing sports with a team. As such, it gives athletes the opportunity to both compete with and alongside friends, but also provides an environment to meet new people and make new friends.
Some of the best memories I have of my youth sport days have nothing to do with the actual games or practices, but more to do with the fun times I shared with hundreds of different teammates over the years and the countless friendships I’ve created because of it!
Knowing that kids want to play with friends, we as coaches need to ensure that our training and practice sessions take place in an environment in which creating friendships and having fun is encouraged and valued.
4. Kids Play to Do Something they’re Good At
No one wants to fail when succeeding feels so much better! But how do you promote improvement and learning without failing? This is where the art of coaching comes into play, balancing the drills and games you do with your players in order to maximize the chances they get to get better by learning while having just as many opportunities where they can succeed.
We always want to promote an environment where our athletes can succeed. Placing our athletes in a situation where they are constantly failing is not fun nor is it conducive to learning. This is why we encourage coaches to adopt the phases of teaching when working with young athletes to ensure that athletes are completing drills and games that are appropriate to their learning stage.
Phases of Teaching:
- Phase A – On Air (without a defender)
- Phase B – Guided Decision Making (with a guided/fake defender)
- Phase C – Execution (live 1 on 1)
- Phase D – Games (2 on 2 – 5 on 5)
5. Kids Play for the Excitement of Competition
Competition is exciting! It’s one of the reasons why athletes of all ages play, or compete, in sporting events. But consider this: does competition mean there is a winner? Or does competition need to have a winner? I would argue that it doesn’t, nor should it.
Take tag for example, tag is an extremely competitive game with many variations. At all times there are people running around as fast as they can competing with one another. But if you get tagged, does that mean you have lost? No, because more often than not, within 10 seconds, you’ll be freed and allowed back in the game, or when you were tagged you switched roles with the person who tagged you. Does that constitute a loss?
When there are winners and loser, there is automatically a 50/50 split of players who are happy and had fun, and those who aren’t and didn’t. The other side of the argument is that, well, if you don’t lose, how are you ever going to learn. That is true, learning from our mistakes and failures is part of how we get better, but it is not the only way. Being able to take lessons from a loss requires a certain level of maturity and understanding that some kids, especially those who are 6-8 years old, don’t have.
We as coaches need to find new ways of changing the way that we look at competition, and reformatting the way it is implemented into our training and practice sessions.
Winning – Does it even matter?
Well it depends. Winning is an objective form of validation. It’s something that we were taught a long time ago was important, especially in life (if you even agree with that). But according to the list, kids have it very very low down on their priorities (remember that 9th placed ranking it holds so proudly?) So should we be caring about it? Do we supposedly know more than them about what they want? Do we know what’s best for them?
Well the fact of the matter is, winning is a huge reason why kids quitting sports. Coaches put winning on the top of the list, and fun at the bottom. It’s backwards if you ask me. The problem with winning is it creates automatic outcome expectations and puts pressure on the athletes to perform to a level they might not be comfortable playing at.
Side note: Whenever we set outcome goals or are focused on certain outcomes, such as winning, we are almost always setting ourselves up to fail because outcomes are largely out of our control. We have no control over how the other team will play, the conditions of the venue, or how the officials are feeling. But when winning is our goal, we are ultimately judged on it.
With winning, pressure is increased and increased pressure causes young athletes to burnout. To those unfamiliar with the concept, how about a definition. According to BBC Sports, Burnout is:
Physical and emotional exhaustion caused by long-term stress.
Long-Term Stress! On 9 year old kids! 9 year old kids should not even know what stress is. Their biggest worries in life should be learning how to construct sentences, the consequences of staying up past their bedtime, and which one of their classmates has a “crush” on them. Not trying to achieve unrealistic expectations so they can please their basketball coach.
Imagine if the roles were reversed, and you were joining a cooking class with your spouse or a friend because you both wanted to learn how to have fun in the kitchen, improve your abilities as a chef at home, and have a new social experience. Imagine if the instructor told you the very first class that you would need to compete with everyone else in the class to create the best Turducken, without first teaching you how to preheat the oven.
Do you even know what Turducken looks like? How would it make you feel? Would you consider quitting due to the added pressure and unrealistic expectations or simply because you didn’t sign-up to compete? How can you expect someone to do something without first being given the tools to do it?
This is the exact same thing some coaches are putting youth athletes through. There is an expectation of winning without first being taught how to dribble or jump. The focus instead should be on the process of development, rather than the outcome of winning.
Process Vs. Outcome
At the end of the day, the conversation is between two goals, either process or outcome (process being development and outcomes being winning). The SNYB curriculum has a huge focus on the process of development rather than simple outcomes. This is how we get the most athletes to participate and enjoy participating.
As a result, when more athletes participate, we can decrease the burnout rate and keep youth active for longer. This will lead to a number of outcomes, but most importantly a generation of youth who associate sports with fun and self-improvement rather than winning and losing. Those youth will grow up to be healthy and active for life as adults because they play sports to have fun.
We see this all the time, when athletes play to win, as soon as they get to 23, and there become fewer and fewer opportunities for competition and to win, they stop playing sports all together. But those who have played their wholes lives for fun, will continue to play for the fun of it.
But the battle to stop burnout starts with coaches. We need to do a better job of fostering an environment where kids enjoy playing sports and want to play, rather than a pressure filled environment that sets kids up to fail. Kids come to play sports to have fun, but somewhere along the way their mentality and motivations are being tainted because someone told them something else was more important.
Ask yourself, with childhood obesity at an all-time high, is winning really that important?
Brandon Brock is currently pursuing a degree in Honours Recreation & Sports Business (Co-op) at the University of Waterloo. A current intern at Canada Basketball, Brandon’s basketball passion lies in coaching – he is also an Assistant Coach with the University of Waterloo Men’s Basketball Team