SBJ/August 21 - 27, 2006/SBJ In Depth

Industry explores ways to keep more youth involved in sports

Estimates show that 70 to 80 percent of
youth ages 13-15 will drop out of sports.
The same burning question drives my curiosity about a 70 percent drop-out rate from youth sports and problems with youth fitness. What business’s survival or expansion depends on holding down attrition while promoting fitness? That’s where I expect to find innovation and answers.

High-performance training programs cater to elite professional and college athletes. But drop in when school is out and you’ll see the core constituency: youth athletes. Many are highly skilled, but others are overweight, lack strength and coordination, or have never done a workout. Also, the training age is dropping to 9 and below.

No one center is the answer machine on attrition, but all have to deal with the reasons kids drop out of sports. Here are some, from a longer list:

  • Injury
  • Boring routines
  • Over-training
  • Poor skill development
  • Sports stress and anxiety
  • Specializing in one sport too early
  • Over-critical coaches
  • Parents who put ego above the athlete’s overall well-being
  • Lack of social bonding with fellow athletes

Various studies and experts estimate that as many as 70 to 80 percent of youth ages 13-15 drop out of sports.

Let’s look at how some high-performance training programs handle these issues and keep youth committed to sports and physical fitness.

High Performance Sports of Peabody, Mass., is run by Dr. Mahlon Bradley, an orthopedic surgeon who was nationally ranked as a skater and an international competitor. He knows from the inside out what knee injuries do to young athletes.

“HPS’s tag line,” Bradley said, “is performance enhancement through injury prevention.” The concept is a paradigm shift — get kids fit for sports‚ rather than rely on sports activity to achieve fitness.

Basketball is the No. 3 sport among high school
athletes, based on total participation.
Denny Ellis, managing partner of Velocity Sports Performance of Gibsonia, Pa., describes its program as “a dynamic warm-up, agility and quickness training, and strength training.” They follow strict guidelines around age and development in working with kids.

While injury prevention and sports preparedness help sell these programs, what really keeps the athlete involved is improvement. Listen to B.J. Maack, strength and conditioning specialist with Arkansas Sports Performance Center: “What keeps them from dropping out? The knowledge that I’m not the slowest kid anymore is enough for many of them.”

ASPC’s staff is encouraged to develop relationships with the kids, to let them know the staff is interested in them. Maack said the relationship building is what helps create repeat business.

There is also something so simple and positive that you might miss the importance of it. Bradley, Ellis and Maack will tell you that the kids are having fun and making friends from different schools and sports. They bond, support each other, and have fun in diverse drills and games. Fun, friendship and interest keep them coming back.

Sports psychologist Caroline Silby emphasizes that when the focus is on “effort, hard work, cooperative learning and acceptance of mistakes,” athletes can attain higher self-esteem, experience less stress and enhance their body image.

Consider how Reed Kagan of Sports Performance Plus in Richmond, Va., approaches the awkwardness of 13- to 14-year-old athletes as they go through physical and developmental changes: “We work through it together with tremendous fun and humor, sometimes relating ourselves and the awkwardness to the movement of various animals while working on tasks and goals.”

When young athletes lack support in this critical juncture, they often drop out.

Since Reed describes himself as “ADHD,” I asked how he approached athletes whose attention span, impulsivity and overactivity may not be well understood by coaches. Kagan tailors training strategies to the needs of these athletes: shorter training sessions in small groups and one- to two-minute games to illustrate technical skills, for example. The point is that a market or niche can be filled by skilled coaches with a knowledge base that fits the youth athlete’s developmental needs and performance goals.

What really excites me about high-performance training centers for youth is their leadership on a culture change involving fitness and participation. When Dave Plettl told me that 75 to 80 percent of youth athletes stay with Titus Sports Academy’s programs, these were exactly the numbers I hoped to hear. When he told me he wants to partner with schools to “revolutionize P.E.” there was no surprise. I expect diffusion of innovation. These programs have a great product that is evolving.

Andrew Bast, owner of Velocity Sports Performance in Ashburn, Va., sees the future in terms of critical skill training that supports specific sports. These are businesses to watch as they create themselves and impact the world of youth, fitness and participation in sports.

Geoff Michaelson, Ph.D., is a sports psychologist and executive and business coach in McLean, Va. He can be reached at or 703-883-1770.

Organized sports
The number of high school athletes playing lacrosse, ice hockey and soccer has increased dramatically since 1990.

No. of athletes
Change from 1990
Ice hockey
Fastpitch softball
Track & field (indoor and outdoor)
Note: Based on sports with participation of at least 2,000 athletes in 2004-05
Source: National Federation of State High School Associations

Ranked by total participation during the 2004-05 school year

Rank Sport
1 Track & field (indoor and outdoor)
2 Football
3 Basketball
4 Soccer
5 Baseball
6 Fastpitch softball
7 Tennis
8 Golf
9 Lacrosse
10 Ice hockey

Source: National Federation of State High School Associations

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