Adolescence and the Loss of Athletic Participation

As high school sports get more competitive, fewer adolescents play

Posted Jan 23, 2012

In general, I believe organized sports are good for adolescents. Through these athletics, young people get to exercise their bodies, enjoy companionship, learn teamwork, engage in competition, benefit from coaching, play by rules, increase skills, develop physical competence, and build self-esteem.

However, like most everything else in adolescence, the benefits of athletics are not as simple as they seem. There are teenagers who don't like to exercise, or are by nature solitary, or don't like fitting into a group, or dislike competition, or resent being coached, or resist following rules, or discount physical skills, or are not motivated to do anything particularly well, or anchor self-esteem elsewhere. Participating in organized athletics is not for everyone.

Even if the young person does like organized sports, she may prefer individual sports like golf, swimming, or tennis where your success depends on personal performance, more than team sports like volleyball, soccer, or basketball where your success depends on the performance of others. Frequently an only child, because of commitment to self-interest and the desire to control personal achievement, will prefer individual to team sports.

What seems sad to me is the fall-off of athletic activity as children journey from elementary school to middle school and then to high school. My impression is that the majority of elementary age students participate in sports, and the majority of high school age students do not.

There seem to be three causes for the diminished adolescent interest in actively playing sports: the social impact of puberty, the seriousness of secondary school sports, and the practice of performance exclusion.

As young people enter puberty, as most do in middle school, children who used to feel comfortable with their bodies become more self-conscious about physical development, comparing their own appearance to peers who are growing up faster in manly and womanly ways. Feeling more easily embarrassed by how they look, and more insecure on that account, some young people find suiting out for a sport, creates more self-exposure than they can comfortably tolerate.

So at a socially vulnerable age, to avoid locker room anxiety and some of the joking and noticing that can go on in there, and to avoid being teased on the floor or field for being uncoordinated and unskilled, they may elect to discontinue playing sports.

Then, there is a profound difference between the recreational play of sports for children on elementary age teams and the more intense competition that starts developing once secondary school gets underway. The quality of coaching can also change. Instead of volunteers or parent coaches working with young children for the physical education and the fun of it, you have tougher coaches who are paid to win and young people more committed to serious play.

As the games get more aggressive, competitive, and intense, so does the coaching as the rigors of practice and the importance of winning can take precedence over the enjoyment of play. Thus many young people who enjoyed doing sports recreationally when younger can decide that more competitive secondary sports are less to their liking and cease direct involvement in athletics. Now they may still enjoy sports, but from a distance as spectators.

Then there is the problem of performance exclusion in sports that comes with secondary schooling. In the elementary age, sports were inclusive. Anyone who wanted to could play. But in secondary school, you start having to try out for teams, and even if you make the cut you still have to compete with team mates for time in the game. At worst, even though you practice regularly, you may be consigned to the bench during the games, or only get token play, which shows the watching crowd how good you really aren't.

Student withdrawal from athletics would not happen to the degree it does in high school, for example, if alongside interscholastic sports, some informal or intramural athletics were offered as well.

Then you wouldn't have to try out to get to participate. You could just show up. You wouldn't have to be particularly skilled to qualify. Being interested would be good enough. You wouldn't have to focus on having to win. You could just enjoy the sport because it was fun to play.

Finally, at a time when there's sigificant public health concerns about "the epidemic of obesity," it might be worthwhile to make adolescent enrollment in athletics as welcoming and accessible as we can. 

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Adolescents and Bullying Coaches