Athlete Retention in an Era of High Performance Clubs

Monday, Oct. 14, 2013

A number of weeks ago I was asked via Twitter where I thought the "33% of youth ski racers who quit return to the sport", and whether or not they came back into interscholastic leagues.  This is an interesting question, which I did not know the answer to.  And although we clearly know that dropout from USSA programming is at its most pronounced at around age 12, we haven't validated the rate of dropout or studied whether or not those athletes continue in ski racing through other avenues, take up different sports, or leave sport completely.

That said dropout is not a unique problem to the USSA.  Virtually in all sports and in virtually all nations, dropout is reported to occur at nearly the same age and nearly the same frequency.

This phenomenon is nothing new, although it appears to be exacerbated by the focus of clubs on athlete performance, which is we know is a key goal for a large number of clubs and for our Association!

The Norwegian Ski Federation recently grappled with this issue, and while their work so far has been mainly focused on leadership and best practice, with initial implementation of their recommendations taking place on a limited "test" basis, there are some great points to consider.

The NSF recently established as a goal to improve their recruiting into the sport and to retain their youth longer in NSF clubs.  Admittedly, they point out that their recruiting and retention problem is like that of many other sports, and also point out that although there is much theoretical information in sport literature about creating good sport environments for youth, these are rarely  effectively implemented.

In Norway, there is a belief that the focus on competition results at the club level begins too early.  They've observed a recent change in sport in general where there is a bigger focus on performance and results in younger age groups than previously.  They've also observe a different type of parent involvement in youth sport, both with parents and with many involved as coaches, which has had a strong influence on the focus of the club.  This has made it tougher for coaches to stand up to the pressure of ambitious parents.  They've observed that this started as a "city phenomenon", but has now really taken hold across their country.  This phenomenon has manifested itself in a specialization that occurs too early, places higher demands early on with equipment and equipment preparation, has increased focus on days on snow at early ages, increased focus on rollerskiing and other specialized dryland activities, and other things that enhance competition performance.  As one NSF club head coach pointed out, "youth sport in Norway has become more focused than elite sport".

The NSF approach to this problem is poignant to the USSA's clubs, as well.  NSF has begun to urge their clubs to expand their offerings to kids, and to accommodate both those who want to compete at a high level and to those who want to participate.  Importantly, they want clubs to do this in a way that doesn't compromise the programming for those that strive to be elite competitors, acknowledging that the vast majority of their clubs are set up for those youth who want to compete and train at a very high level!  They recognize that their clubs are extremely good at this, through recruiting of high performance coaches, strong elite training facilities, high-level training sessions, and an environment that identifies and favors the very best.  And that is not something they want to compromise.

In NSF's view, sport is built upon competition, and they want a lot of athletes in their system, who are capable of becoming top competitors.  But they also want to ensure that other youth in NSF clubs also receive a good offering built around fitness and healthy lifestyles if that's what they choose.

NSF has observed that the training and competition environment in its clubs has become so high-level at such a young age that youth have no chance if they decide to start in a ski club at age 10, since the development of those athletes is already so far behind the others in their clubs.  In that way, they believe they've negatively impacted their recruiting possibilities, which in turn has resulted in a likely loss of athletes with talent for the sport.  NSF also notes that in the current club environment, they are experiencing significant dropout at 11-12 years old vs. 14-15, which has been their experience in the past (and which they believe is a more natural and "ok" age for athletes to transition into other sports or other activities in life).

Based on these observations, NSF has asked itself "Do youth have to compete to take part in NSF clubs"?  They believe their clubs may have too much of a one-sided focus on competition, and that since competition is an important part of sport there is a bias that all youth in clubs must compete.  But NSF also recognizes that perhaps there are many youth who do not want to compete, at least not while they are getting started with the sport.  Instead, they want to take part in training sessions after school, learn skills and be physically fit, and have fun with their friends.  And they may not want the extra demands associated with competition such as updating equipment, travel, not finishing amongst the best, etc.

And therefore, NSF is leading a number of its clubs to create non-competitive opportunities for 10-12 year-old athletes.  In some cases, this means urging clubs to hire new coaches, who are specialized in creating more social, skills and fun-focused activities, to run non-competition programming.  In others it means running the same training sessions for all athletes, but allowing the athletes to choose whether or not they want to compete.  In some it means focusing more on multi-sport activities focused on a more broad development.  And in still others it means creating additional competition groups and competitions for those of different abilities and with different focuses.

The challenges faced by NSF are not much different from those faced by the USSA.  Through the USSA's Club Development Program, similar leadership is being applied to USSA Clubs.  And through the USSA's coach education program, many of these challenges are being addressed through the USSA's National Training Systems and recommendations for USSA coaches.  Overall, both associations are clearly focused on competition and elite performance as an essential basis, but also recognize the role that recreational participation plays in the offerings to their members, and to the health of their clubs and the sport overall.

Luke Bodensteiner - EVP, Athletics

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