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There's a real problem in Australia of kids dropping out of sport. To fix it we should look at why children like to play games in the first place. My son's soccer team seems to have worked it out, writes Paul Kennedy.
The dropout rates in junior sport in Australia are a big worry. These days, more and more adolescents are saying to their parents and coaches, "I don't wanna play anymore!"
It's a trend that mirrors what's happening in other countries with similarly over-the-top attitudes to youth competitions.
For example, an initiative called the "Changing The Game Project" reckons 70 per cent of sporty kids in the US quit by the time they are teenagers. In order to better understand the issue, the Australian Sports Commission is this year measuring our own national participation decline. According to ASC research boss Paul Fairweather:
"There is quite a drop off in those teenage years into organised sport. We've actually just started our own survey of adults and kids. We certainly know there's much more pressure on people's time and their wallet and there's a lot more options available to kids and adults now than (there was) 20 years ago."
Concerned leaders of major codes are being tempted to take over management at all levels and tweak rules. Some of the modifications, like not officially scoring in the youngest competitions, are sensible. But the AFL's recent enforcement of strict age guidelines for beginners to prevent injuries and burn out misses the mark.
Instead, it would be better to examine inconsistencies in the way we coach our youngsters. For an example of the best type of leader, let me introduce you to my son's under-8 soccer manager - call him Fun Coach - whose quality would embarrass many professionals.
Fun Coach is a father of three who never played the sport he teaches. But he is resourceful enough to seek help and, as a result, runs thoughtful practices once a week, during which no child is left queuing for a kick.
At these training sessions he organises games that improve skills and introduce small disciplines. He always encourages, never criticises. On weekends - match day! - Fun Coach is as competitive as anyone but rejects urges to focus on winning; he gives all his players equal time, in all positions, no matter the score.
Fun Coach sets an example for all parents when he loudly applauds the efforts of opposition players. After the final whistle is blown, he gives awards for effort. In short, he understands children play sport for fun and to be with their friends, and treats them with the respect they deserve.
Luckily, both of my active eight- and 10-year-old sons have more than one Fun Coach; their Australian rules and basketball mentors are experienced ex-players - passionate, caring and organised.
One of them is also school principal by the name of Steve Capp. Steve knows that focussing on participation causes children to develop impressive qualities of leadership and empathy through collaboration. He explains:
"There is nothing more heart warming than one kid trying to show another kid how to kick. I see this all the time at the skateboard park. Groups of kids, often strangers, just helping each other out ... no wrong or right way."
My boys are playing in this sporting sweet spot, which doesn't last long. Games are often coached differently from ages 11-15 - the drop out zone - due to the emergence of Blinkered Coach, who dreams of winning premierships or developing champions, forgetting the merits of participation.
Blinkered Coach errs in copying the so-called sporting elite and taking Vince Lombardi quotes seriously.
Under pressure from a minority of overbearing parents, Blinkered Coach trains athletes harder and longer, intent on superior fitness and complicated tactics.
A few stand-out players are increasingly favoured and given dominant field positions that they will own for the entire season.
Mums and dads of the "best kids" are pleased with Blinkered Coach but the other families feel more and more jaded. Most parents don't know what to say to their unhappy, under-developed children so they offer unwanted performance critiques in the car on the way home.
Eventually, their sons and daughters just don't want to do it anymore. Why would they? Where's the fun in it?
Blinkered Coach is usually passionate and well meaning and so cannot understand why many of the players don't come back every year.
Simply, it is because the children are being treated with unequal respect. There is no use blaming only the coaches or even the most obsessed parents. Everyone is responsible. Clubs should monitor their volunteers more closely and give them consistent big-picture advice.
Junior leagues need to do more than talk about fairness; they should demand the Fun Coach approach be compulsory for all.
It takes courage to stand against the winning-is-everything myth but, fortunately, a better participation rate is not the only selling point. It is true that coaches who create a fun, challenging, honest and kind environment will see their relaxed teams improve beyond anything Blinkered Coach can manage.
Smiling comes before the prize.
Paul Kennedy is the national sports presenter on ABC News Breakfast and presents sports news through the morning on ABC News 24. Check out Paul's FunCoachMovement Facebook page for more tips