Age 11 Is When Kids Quit Sports, Here Is The Problem

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Retired NBA Player Kobe Bryant, pictured here with participants at the Her Time To Play basketball clinic hosted by the JR.NBA and WNBA, is trying to talk kids out of retiring from sports as part of the Don’t Retire, Kid campaign. (Photo by Will Navarro/NBAE via Getty Images)

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Today, August 4, at 8 am Eastern Time on ESPN‘s SportsCenter, an athlete announced his retirement. But there won’t be too many benefits accompanying such a retirement. In fact, this type of retirement really should not be happening and has been a growing problem across America.

The athlete is a kid. Not Jason Kidd, who is retired already, but a kid kid, a young kid who has decided to quit playing sports. The reason is not that he has already won enough championships or decided to pursue an acting career to be the next Rock, aka the Pebble. It’s because playing sports just hasn’t been fun for him.

The kid on the ESPN announcement isn’t real, meaning that it is a real kid actor playing a fictional character. But the problem is real. Throughout the country, kids are leaving sports way too early. What’s way too early? A survey conducted by the Aspen Institute along with the Utah State University Families in Sports Lab found that kids on average quit playing sports by age 11. That’s typically by the sixth grade, the start of middle school, before the “my parents are not cool” phase is supposed to happen. The ESPN announcement is part of the Aspen Institute’s Don’t Retire, Kid campaign, aimed at bringing more attention to the kid early retirement problem.  The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, the U.S. Tennis Association and other members of Project Play 2020 are also supporting this campaign.

These “early retirements” are big problems because they’re contributing to the physical inactivity epidemic that’s been getting worse and worse over the past three decades in our country. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has dubbed physical inactivity “a global public health problem.” As I have described previously for Forbes, less than a third of youth in the U.S. are reaching the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s “active to a healthy level,” which is just 25 minutes of high-calorie-burning physical activity three times a week. Not getting enough physical activity can lead to overweight issues and obesity during childhood and into adulthood. These in turn can lead to a range of medical problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.  Our computational modeling study published in the journal Health Affairs quantified the many billions of dollars in direct medical costs and productivity losses this level of physical inactivity will continue to cost our country. And these costs will be passed along to you, assuming that you depend on the economy in some way and pay for health insurance and pay taxes. The first of these should apply to everyone, the last to most.

Since most kids aren’t pulling ploughs these days, sports could be one of the best ways to stay physically active. Sports should be fun just like avocado toast is supposed to be yummy. But for many kids, sports just isn’t fun anymore.

One problem is that sports has become more about the competition than the enjoyment. Rather than being inclusive, many coaches and competitive sports leagues are weeding out kids at early ages or not dedicating enough time or effort towards kids who don’t clearly show the potential of being stars. Thus, kids have to suffer feeling rejected and unwanted early in their lives at a time when they are most impressionable.

Former football player Julie Foudy, seen here taking a selfie with teammates of the 1999 United States Women’s National Team, will also be part of the Don’t Retire, Kid campaign. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

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Another problem is that sports can like exclusive clubs, allowing only certain kinds of kids inside. Coaches may favor those kids who remind them of themselves and not reach out to those who are from different backgrounds. Boys of certain races and backgrounds and girls may not feel welcome. Playing sports can be prohibitively expensive as well for kids who don’t have the economic means. The survey conducted by the Aspen Institute and the Utah State University team showed that on average each year travel cost $196, equipment cost $144, private lessons cost $134, registration fees cost $125, and camps cost $81 per sport per child. That may not sound much if you are the kid of a Silicon Valley hedge fund manager but it’s a lot if you are a family struggling to make ends meet.

A third problem is that for those who can or are allowed to play, sports can seem more like work than play. The survey revealed that kids on average were spending 11.9 hours per week on their sport but could total up to 60 hours a week during the sport season. This number of hours is a briefcase and a Powerpoint Presentation short of a full-time job.

Then there’s the problem of early sports specialization that I discussed previously for Forbes. According to the Project Play initiative, 45% of kids play only one sport. Kids ain’t robots or expresso machines. If they repeatedly do the same thing and use the same motions and body parts, they may be more likely to get burnt out and injured.

SportsCenter interview with Kobe Bryant will follow the ESPN retirement announcement. Bryant, who is retired from the NBA but did not retire at age 11, is the lead spokesperson for the Don’t Retire, Kid campaign. The campaign will also feature the following sports figures:

  • Sue Bird, WNBA player for the Seattle Storm
  • Clayton Kershaw, pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers
  • Sloane Stephens, American professional tennis player
  • Mookie Betts, outfielder for the Boston Red Sox
  • Albert Pujols, first baseman for the Los Angeles Angels
  • Wayne Gretzky, former NHL star
  • Julie Foudy, two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion
  • Cody Bellinger, first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers
  • Muffet McGraw, head women’s basketball coach at Notre Dame
  • Geno Auriemma, head women’s basketball coach at Connecticut
  • Dave Roberts, manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers
  • Nomar Garciaparra, former Major League Baseball star

Although the name and the hashtag (#DontRetireKid) of the campaign is oriented towards kids, it could just as well say #Parentsandcoachesstopdoingthingsthatmakeyourkidretire or the more positive but equally long #Parentsfindwaystoencourageyourkidnottoretire. As Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program and driving force behind Project Play, explained “Parents are the game-changers in youth sports. To keep kids playing longer, we need to help parents ask the right questions of themselves, their child, and their local sport providers. I commend the organizations at the center of Project Play 2020 for showing the leadership to keep sport in the lives of more children.”

Sue Bird #10 of the Seattle Storm, seen here with Kobe Bryant, will also participate in the Don’t Retire, Kid campaign. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

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Project Play has assembled variety of resources to help parents navigate what can sometimes feel like a Game of Thrones world of youth sports. This includes eight strategies to keep kids playing sports, and a sports index to help find the right sport for a kid.

The initial retirement announcement is just the start of the Don’t Retire, Kid campaign. There may be other retirement announcements as well as other events. “At ESPN we believe sports should be available to every child,” said Jimmy Pitaro, president of ESPN in a statement. “We want to shed light on this important issue so that kids can take advantage of the benefits of sports, from increased health to better outcomes in school. ESPN, together with our league and business partners, have committed to working together to address this issue.”

Retirement from work may have its benefits but sports is something where you want to delay retirement as long as you can. The earlier you walk away, the less that you can benefit from all the mental, emotional, social, and physical health advantages that sports have to offer.

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