Teenage sticks

Seven in 10 children in the US quit organized sports by the age of 13 and girls give up at six times the rate of boys. ALISON FOLEY digs below the figures and asks how we can retain our teens in soccer amid competition

A 2016 poll from the National Alliance of Youth Sports showed that 70 per cent of children in the US quit organized sports by the age of 13.

It is also said that girls give up at six times the rate of boys and that only seven per cent of high-school athletes move on to play sports in college.

I wrote How To Coach Girls with Mia Wenjen as a manual to help coaches – both professionals and volunteers – and to share more than two decades of experience in coaching young women.

The positive aspects of keeping girls in sports are numerous – from positive body image and higher grades to lower rates of pregnancy and high self-confidence.

There are also benefits that help in their careers, from learning teamwork and leadership skills to access to networking opportunities.

So what is the secret sauce to keep girls in sports? It’s a simple but elusive one – fun.

What does that mean? How do we translate “fun” into a sport while still making it competitive? Well, fun has many aspects but let’s focus on four:

1. Make her feel valued

Girls tend to doubt their abilities and self-worth. They worry about fitting in. They worry about failure. Girls need a safe and nurturing environment where they can feel comfortable trying new things.

The easiest way to make female athletes feel valued is to connect with them on a personal level. Find a way to praise each and every player during each practice.

Girls are very hard on themselves; they don’t necessarily need someone to point out what they are doing wrong all the time.

Instead, find the moments when they are doing something praiseworthy, such as trying something new, mastering a skill they had been working on, or even exhibiting leadership or compassion.

Let each player know that you, the coach, are looking forward to seeing them at the next practice, the next game, and the next season. Your enthusiasm will help fuel theirs.


2. See her as a whole person

Your female players want to be seen as a whole person, not just as an athlete with skills.

They want you, the coach, to know and appreciate the different aspects of their lives – from their other extracurricular activities and their sense of humour to their social relationships.

This takes time and coaches often have that in short supply, but it’s the key to earning trust. And this trust is necessary for interpreting the coach.

It is easy for female players to interpret a coaches’ words or actions, even if incorrect or unintentional, as “coach doesn’t like me” or “I’m not coach’s favourite”.

There was a Kindergarten teacher at our school that everyone wanted their child to have. She had the gift of making each of her students feel like they were her favourite.

Taking the time to build a relationship with each player tells her that she’s your “favourite”.

3. Help her form connections with her team-mates

The social aspect is another reason why sports are fun for girls.

Playing different sports and being on different teams gives them the opportunity to meet new people and make new friends that might be outside of their usual social circles such as the school that they attend. These social connections can last well beyond the season.

Try using ice-breakers at the start of every practice, during warm-up. Something as silly as asking questions about their favourite ice cream flavour, or if they have a pet, can help them connect with each other.

Another thing to be mindful of is breaking the team into smaller groups. Girls might already be in groups due to carpools that might be formed based on a city or school, and this can lead to cliques.

Girls tend to stand next to the people that they know. Instead of letting girls form their own groups, have them count off. This naturally mixes up girls with ones that they don’t know.

4. From teen to college

As girls transition from middle school to high school, there can be a drop off in sports participation.

Many sports have try-outs and cuts. Also, very few sports are open to beginners.

If the girls you coach are young, be open to having them play different sports. Multi-sport athletes tend to have fewer injuries, burn out less and learn from being in different roles, depending on their ‘main’ versus ‘fun’ sport.

The transition from high school to college is also a time when girls stop playing sports. Remind your players of the many options to participate in sports in college from intramural (try a new sport or one that is just meant for silly fun) to club to junior varsity to varsity.

College is also a great time to try something new that athletes might not have time or access to before such as squash, rock climbing, Zumba, or rugby.

We want our players to feel like sports is always an open door for them because it is. It is a gift that keeps on giving. And you, the coach, are the giftor.

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