When I think of sport my mind turns to two things: 1) the pros I see on the TV, and 2) kids and young people. I sometimes feel Sports clubs forget about their 15-25 age bracket. For some this is valid because this age is notoriously difficult to retain or attract. Why might that be? Are they just not interested? Are they too busy? My thoughts go towards clubs not knowing how to cater for this age group and how healthy this age group’s bodies and minds are. If I think about how many hundreds of people I have trained and competed against when I was 9-15 years old, and come up with a list of who is still in the sport either competing, coaching, officiating or just part of a club...the answer is maybe 10.
All clubs know that young people are the future of their particular sport, but that is only true if they go on to be involved with the sport or club for years to come. In athletics U13 and U15 are by far the most populated age groups both at competition and in our club. Then the number who make it into U17 and U20 dwindles. It has always been my mission as a coach to help people to have long and fruitful careers in the sport at whatever level they achieve. It’s too early to tell whether that approach has been successful, but what I do know is that if we as a club don’t start to put the measures in place to make sure they will enjoy us in the long term we will lose them, and going by history they won’t come back.
So, what can we as a club do to encourage retention? Well that depends on why people leave! Our young adults are busy with school/uni/college, boy/girlfriends, finding independence, driving, travelling, working or socialising at the pub. How can an athletics club compete with that? Flexible training hours and an enhanced social side springs to mind. I think it is less to do with the sport and more to do with the people by that age. If they can have an afternoon of competing and then go to the pub to spend their winnings, compete on the other side of the world or train/work in balance then we might be onto a winner.
The second and most important issue when it comes to young people is protecting them from injury. As a coach I have a responsibility to get the most out of my athletes, but NOT at any cost. In my coaching career I might find 1 in 10,000 who make a profitable career out of it. For the other 9,999 they have to be happy and healthy to be able to carry out normal life. Even if an athlete I coach has a successful amateur career, makes it to a Commonwealth Games but ends up with no cartilage in their knees by 20 years old then I would consider that a failure and myself responsible.
And with that, how can I expect that athlete to take part in the sport and club through their 20s? They would have every right to resent me and the sport. As young people grow they go through vulnerable stages, particularly when they are growing. Some coaches see this growth as being the green light to start piling on the workload. In reality it is a red light and you should stop and cut their volume in half! I have learned this from the mistakes of others and had to try to patch up the cracks. I have been successful with some and not so with others. If more coaches can understand what happens when the body grows, what to do about it and how to communicate this to their athletes the chances are we would find our clubs a little fuller in the 15-25 age range.
By Scott Hamilton.