The problem of the late-starter athlete in youth sport programs

We don't often think of age and experience as demographic forces. But just as gravity or compound interest are omnipresent in other aspects of our lives, age is a tsunami in youth sport.

If you've been reading this newsletter over the past two years then you know that I like to write about meta factors that affect the youth sport environment more than smaller problems existing within specific sports. Culture is like gravity; its influence on sport is hardly ever noticed simply because it is ever present. Coming in a close second place though is demographics. NGBs cannot change culture but if they understand how it affects their activities and overall success then they will be able to operate more efficiently and effectively. Likewise, understanding the NGB's national demographics can inform future planning and help practitioners appreciate why some things happen the way they do.

Fertility rate is a long-term demographic factor that reveals what the overall population will be in the coming years. It also helps determine the age distribution within that population. As I wrote before, fertility rates in some countries are falling and have been for some time. Consequently, in the not too distant future youth sport programs in the affected countries will have fewer athletes in their developmental schemes. But fertility rate is a long term demographic factor. Age, on the other hand, is a demographic factor that has always had a reductive effect as athletes get older, and as the trend toward early, single-sport specialization continues to grow, age as a factor is narrowing the window of opportunity for young athletes to join sport programs.

How does age reduce youth sport participation?

One of the baked-in quirks of a mature youth sport system is that the desire to offer a sport-for-all experience is often stymied by well intended but onerous all-comer claims. When NGBs and sport clubs say that all athletes are eligible to join local programs they're betting that a cohort of mostly younger athletes will take them up on the offer. If an older child with no experience in the sport shows up on registration day practitioners are faced with the dilemma of deciding where he fits into the instructional/training scheme. What do you do with a youngster who has no experience and probably very low-level skills compared to his more experienced peers?

When I coached swimming my answer to this question was that I would consider both age and ability when making group placements; this is the way I think most coaches would do it. Although this answer sounds right it wasn't very useful in a practical sense. Being able to make a training group assignment based on age and ability depended on the club having such a group or training session where the new athlete's age and experience would fit. Without this it just doesn't work. Large clubs might be able to support groups like this, small clubs can not.

This issue exists in all sports in some form. Each sport though would handle it differently due to practice and competitive requirements and whether it was an individual or team activity.

There are two ways to look at this. If you assign the youngster to a group according to his ability, a 15-year-old with no experience in a sport would have an ability level closer to much younger athletes, say 9- or 10-year-olds. Placing him in his proper ability group with the 10-year-olds would be a social nightmare for the kid and the chance of retaining him in the program past a few weeks would be close to zero.

The other possibility is to prioritize age and assign him to a group with higher skilled, same-age peers. This could be better socially but might present problems with safety, space, and coaching attention. And even though he would be training with his friends he would soon realize that he did not have the same level of skills, and could not fully participate in practice and maybe not in the sport itself. Unless he was able to catch up with the others in the group quickly the odds are that his sport participation would be short.

You might be wondering, "So what? This is normal. There's nothing we can do about this. As long as there is sport and athletes there will be those who fall into this situation." I have to agree that this is mostly true but there are two trends in youth sport that are driving this situation and perhaps making it worse:

  • Earlier starting age for full blown youth sport participation. Organized training and competition is being offered for athletes younger than ever before in many sports. This increases the gap in ability between those who start sport early and those who join several years later. The wider the ability gap becomes the harder it is to mitigate.
  • Trend toward early, single-sport specialization. This has been happening for quite some time in youth sport. As I've written about several times previously this is more a reflection of social change--parents searching for a convenient way to organize their children's physical activities--than a desire for more intense training, although there is that aspect to it also. Early specialization shifts the youth sport lifecycle toward younger ages. When large numbers of athletes begin their organized sport participation at very young ages it makes it increasingly difficult for others to join sport programs at later ages.

We don't often think of age and experience as demographic forces. But just as gravity or compound interest are omnipresent in other aspects of our lives, age is a tsunami in youth sport. It exerts decisive pressure on whether or not youngsters even join youth sport programs and then on how long they stay engaged. There isn't anything practitioners can do to change the way age affects athlete experience but understanding its effects can help us design better sport programs and train more knowledgeable coaches.