Increasing engagement by addressing de-selection practices in youth sportPosted on October 10, 2018
As researchers and educators who have been (and still are!) extensively involved in sport, back to school time also means back to school SPORT time! Through our personal experience and our research, we know firsthand the positive impact that participation in sports can have on child development. We are also acutely aware that many children and youth do not have the chance to attain these benefits as they are cut from teams, burnt out by single sport specialization or simply never provided an opportunity to play. For those in schools and communities involved with sports programs (coaches, parents, principals, teachers, rec leaders, etc.) it is important to be aware of both sides of the coin. Sports are good for kids BUT not all kids are able to play. Yet.
During the 2018 Winter Olympics, many people became familiar with the Norwegian approach to youth sport:
In Norway, children are encouraged to join local sport clubs to help with their social development but there are strict rules, which prevent anyone from keeping score — no one can be ranked first to last until they turn 13. “We want them to be in sports because they want to be,” Tore Øvrebø, head of the Norwegian team, explained to CNN Sport. The focus is on other aspects, he says, not the competitive side. “Instead (of winning) they want to have fun and they want to develop not only as athletes but as social people.”
“Our vision is sport for all. Before you are 12 you should have fun with sport. So we don’t focus on who the winner is before then. Instead we are very focused on getting children into our 11,000 local sports clubs.” Tom Tvedt, President of Norway’s Olympic Committee. (The Guardian)
In contrast to the Norwegian approach, in both our research and experiences as coaches and parents, we have seen something quite different. As an example, this quote is from a parent in response to a previous blog about cutting (de-selection):
I just read your blog and I wanted to tell you about my son’s experience in tryouts. My son is 8 (that’s right, only 8) he was on a Tier 1 team. His team was really good and then after the season, they had tryouts for the next season. The tryouts were two 1-hour tryout sessions. At the end of the 2nd day, all of the players were called into a circle around the coaches. If you made one of the teams, your name was called and you were given a piece of paper to give to your parents to register you for the team. After all of the papers were given out, the rest were told they did not make a team. A couple of boys from his team did not make the roster of the new team. They just sat there while the rest of their old teammates screamed with joy. This made me sick.
As professionals in physical education who have played and coached sport at a variety of levels, comments like this about Canadian sport make us cringe. The current problems with participation and engagement in youth sport (e.g., sport drop out [Crane & Temple, 2015]; decline in sport participation during adolescence [Zimmerman-Sloutskis, Zimmerman, & Martin, 2010]; sport specialization [Jayanthi et al., 2013]) led us to begin a program of research that includes to date: surveys of over 1,600 coaches and athletic directors (Junior and High Schools); 52 interviews with young athletes (ages 13-18 years old) who had been cut in the past and their parents; a case study of re-imagined sport at a junior high school and; research into alternative models of sport that endeavour to increase participation and keep kids playing as along as possible. This article will provide strategies to improve de-selection practices and offer alternative sport models to increase youth participation in sport.
Easing the Pain of Cutting
Findings from our research confirm that de-selection cuts deep (Gleddie, Sulz, Humbert & Zajdel, in press). There are negative emotional, social and physical consequences. Athletes lose friends and are forced to find new social circles. They question their own identities and can feel lost and adrift. Perhaps quite obviously, their self-esteem is shaken. Time spent being physically active is reduced – not being on the team means no more practices and games. Cutting also deterred athletes from future participation in the same sport, due to low perceptions of ability in that sport. As well, when no specific feedback was provided as to why athletes were cut there was a tendency to assume a low level of skill and a prediction of future failure. The same results happened when athletes were given feedback about things they can’t change like, “You’re too short”.
For coaches, there are four factors that can improve the experience for de-selected athletes:
- Immediacy – Don’t make them wait! Communicate a date that team selection decisions will be made, as close to the final tryout as possible. Some athletes reported refreshing their email every few minutes, for days, or waiting by the phone to receive the call.
- Privacy – Please don’t tell them in front of the whole group; schedule a time for face-to-face meetings if feasible or, at minimum, personal phone calls to inform athletes in a private setting. Avoid posting a list for all to see or reading out names in front of peers.
- Encouragement – Provide options for continuing to improve in the sport. Help athletes move past the disappointment by connecting them with other playing opportunities (e.g., community organizations, sport camps, recreation leagues, and opportunities to transition to other sports).
- Expectations – Be clear and up front about what you are looking for and the process of making the team. Share the team selection process, timelines, and communication methods with athletes and parents prior to tryouts.
As well, the athletes told us that the best way to help them cope with being cut is to provide clear reasons in a face-to-face meeting. Specifically, meetings should include:
- State the outcome first – Do not beat around the bush, start with “I am sorry you did not make the team”. Athletes are focused on whether they made the team or not. Until you tell them, they will not internalize anything that is said.
- Tell them why – Provide the athlete with information on why they were cut – specific, personal explanations. Avoid generic feedback, such as, “we had a lot of great players in your position.” This feels impersonal to the athlete and does provide a clear explanation of the decision.
- Provide actionable feedback – things athletes can actually improve. Avoid unalterable feedback (e.g., “you are not tall enough”) and offer specific skills/attributes to improve upon (e.g., “work on your ball handling skills”).
- Write it up – Eliminate miscommunication or misperceptions of what was said in the one-on-one discussion by providing written feedback. Athletes often forget or misinterpret what was discussed in meetings. Written feedback will help athletes accurately interpret and remember information as well as correctly share what was said with parents.
Re-Imagining Sport for Children and Youth
Recently, Canada received a disappointing “D+” on physical activity levels (ParticipACTION Report Card 2018). Only 35% of 5-17 year-olds are meeting the recommended guidelines of a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. Participation in organized sport did a bit better, a “B”, with 77% of 5-17 year olds participating in organized physical activity or sport. We feel that Canadian sport can do even better. Through our research, we’ve heard from teachers and coaches that are using a range of innovative approaches to shift the typical mindset from cutting and “riding the pine” towards an education-focused model of athlete development. Here are a few examples (some of which we are beginning to research):
- Tiered sport model (Manitoba). Students are tiered based on ability and placed on one of three teams of equal quality. Tier 1 represents the school and competes against other schools in competition. Tier 2 and Tier 3 practice and have inter-squad competitions. One of the best parts of this model includes that if a student-athlete shows improvement, they can move up tiers to ensure they are at the level appropriate to their ability!
- Everyone Plays (Alberta). In this model, everyone interested in playing literally had the opportunity to play. While the logistics associated with the approach can be daunting, schools are making it happen. One junior high school said yes to more than 100 students for basketball. Teams practice in the mornings, at lunch, and after school. The school and staff have created an environment where teacher-coaches are valued, supported and want to coach. A similar model, where school sport programs include any kid who wants to play any school sport, has also been successful in Ontario.
- More Teams (Saskatchewan). In this model, although students may still be cut from a sport team, the schools have created two teams as opposed to one at the grade 9 and 10 levels – allowing more kids to play! One team (the Blue Team) is comprised of more advanced players. The other team (the Green Team) is comprised of players less advanced. For interscholastic competition, the Green Team from one school plays the Green Team from another school and Blue plays Blue, allowing for developmentally appropriate, levelled competition.
Shifting the Culture
Our goal as coaches and researchers is to keep as many young people participating in sport as possible. To achieve this goal, it is important to consider alternative sport models that encourage participation and long-term involvement in sport. We need to work together at all levels (school, community, club and elite), with all stakeholders (parents, sport organizations, government, researchers, coaches and especially the kids) to take the following steps:
- Focus on Developing Athletes – Make sport about development FIRST – winning and podiums can come later, if at all. Make Canada a place where sport for all is part of our collective culture.
- STOP supporting early specialization – Allow kids to play multiple sports across multiple sport seasons (please stop the year round hockey!). Sport administrators can do this by creating and enforcing policy that promotes multi-sport participation (policy that regulates the amount of time, season of play and funding sports receive). Coaches can do this by promoting the benefits of multi-sport participation and not over scheduling their team. Parents can do this by not over scheduling their children, encouraging the love of numerous sports and activities, and by going out and playing with their kids.
- Consider re-imagining sport to be for ALL – We can still have elite sport, but we need to cherish participatory levels and grow a wide base of sporting children that become sporting adults.
- Organizations need to work together – Stop competing for athletes and allow athletes to play in multiple sport avenues (e.g., school sport and club sport). Promote collaboration between sports and sport organizations by allowing athletes to miss a practice or two to play a different sport or at a different level/organization (see the above point on early specialization).
- Consider alternatives to cutting athletes – Reflect on the effects of cutting athletes in your program and implement the above recommendations to help ease the pain. More importantly, consider whether your program really NEEDS to cut? We realize that sometimes there are logistical reasons (time, people, space) for programs to cut athletes…but let’s not use this as a rationale to deny opportunities for kids to play.
Together, we can ensure that Canada becomes the BEST place in the world to be a kid and play sport.
About the Author
Jonathan Mauro (@jnlmauro) is a PhD student in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He is a middle school physical education and outdoor education teacher and coaches numerous school sport teams. Jonathan’s areas of research interest include exploring alternative school sport models within a Comprehensive School Health framework to enhance student engagement and participation.
Douglas Gleddie (@doug_gleddie) is a parent, an athlete, a coach and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in health and physical education, reflective practice, physical literacy and research methods. Doug’s research foci include: narratives of physical education; school sport; physical literacy praxis; meaningful physical education and; teacher education.
Lauren Sulz (@Lauren_Sulz) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Education. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in health and physical education, whole-child education, and physical and health literacy. Her research areas include school sport, athlete de-selection, physical literacy and comprehensive school health. Lauren works with both in-service and pre-service teachers in the areas of health and physical education.
Crane, J. & Temple, V. (2015). A systematic reiew of dropout from organized sport among children and adolescents. European Physical Education Review, 21(1), 114-131.
Gleddie, D., Sulz, L., Humbert, L., & Zajdel, A. (in press). If you must cut athletes from school sport teams: consider best practices. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance.
Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., & LaBella, C. (2013). Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health, 5(3), 251–257.
ParticipACTION (2018). Canadian kids need to move more to boost their brain. The 2018 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.
Zimmermann-Sloutskis, D., Wanner, M., Zimmermann, E., & Martin, B. W. (2010). Physical activity levels and determinants of change in young adults: a longitudinal panel study. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 7(2).