Rugby union is one of the most well-supported sports across the UK and even the world, which I’m sure for you reading this is no surprise, this being said participation in the sport is taking a decline. There seem to be a couple of key times when young players drop out of the sport; the first is when full contact tackling is introduced into the game, and the second is at colts (16-18-year-olds).
This begs the question why are young players dropping out of playing rugby...
Extensive research has looked into why young people drop out of sports and I want to share the key findings with you to help keep young players in a sport they love!
It all comes down to enjoyment! As a teacher and coach, you may think it easy to create fun and challenging rugby sessions, but unfortunately, this is not the only piece of the puzzle. The factors that led to players leaving rugby were related to their perceptions of themselves (intrapersonal constraints), perceptions of others (interpersonal constraints), and practical/financial factors (structural constraints). Let’s break down each piece of the puzzle so that we can better understand how to keep youngsters playing lifelong rugby!
The first point raised is intrapersonal constraints. This refers to the individual thoughts and feelings of the children you coach. Some examples of intrapersonal constraints are a lack of enjoyment, low perceptions of their own ability, or negative perception of the team dynamic.
A lack of enjoyment is a very broad heading, and the other two examples, which I will discuss, will contribute to this too. Other factors that contribute to a lack of enjoyment come from reasons such as strict practice routines and strict rules. This, for some children, stifles their creativity and the element of play that keeps them playing the game.
It is at the heart of what we do as coaches to create a FUN and safe learning environment. Without this how can we in any sport hope to keep future generations playing lifelong sport?
So, what can we do to combat these concerns that have been raised?
Try not to structure each training session the same. As much as is it easy for coaches to follow a set structure for each session, this can become a very repetitive situation for children. This does not mean you have to reinvent the wheel each week, but simply change how you approach different sections of the session. This could mean one week you are very skill zone focused to improve a certain skill, make sure the next session has more of a game emphasis. Another tip would be if you follow the same timing structure each week, why not change it up to provide more emphasis on different phases of a session?
When it comes to having strict rules, I appreciate that children will need to know the rules of the sport and play the game within them if they want to play a lifelong sport. This does not mean that every game you choose for training has to replicate the sport exactly. The first game I was introduced to when I came into rugby was rugby netball. Yes, it had a rugby ball, but the rest of the rules did not really align with the game of rugby. That being said it improved team communication, ball handling skills, and special awareness. I think we can all agree that each of these components holds value in a game of rugby.
This relates to the multiple relationships formed by children in sports, such as between themselves and parents, coaches and other players. Sometimes these relationships can put stress on the child which may have a negative impact. For example, some children spoke of how they felt pressure from their parents or coaches to take part and the loss of ownership of their participation.
One key concern raised by the children is their parent’s involvement in their sport. We must remember that most children are introduced to a sport because of their parents. So, we, as coaches, must remove the bias of some pressure that may come from the parent of being great in one sport. Children may feel an obligation within a sport not to disappoint their parents, which I think we can understand would be a large stressor for a child, so we can provide some FUN to help the children relax and just enjoy being active and to claim the sport for themselves!
Structural constraints relate to financial limitations, injuries, and the feeling that there is too much structure to organised sport.
Unfortunately, we cannot always help with the financial situation of a family but being aware that this may be affecting some of your players you can do your utmost to ensure the children get the most out of the time with you. Some children won’t be able to afford the newest kit and we should not draw attention to any style choices the players decide to wear. Not all of your players will be able to afford to attend social events or summer camps so initiate an open conversation to allow the player to have a voice instead of always talking sport.
Injuries may be an inevitability, especially in a contact sport like rugby, but this can have a huge impact on the motivation of a child and their parent. Increasing awareness of head injuries and the trauma of broken bones has seen the decline in the return of children to sport after these types of injuries. As a coach, the safety and well-being of your players is the most important element. While you cannot see the future you can prepare your players for multiple situations and develop them physically to cope with the demands of rugby. If an injury does occur, don’t put the player out to pasture! They are still a member of your team and encourage the player to be involved with coaching and supporting the team. Support them and their parents by making contact to check in!
When it comes to too much structure in an organised sports environment, I feel that an underlying theme has developed as I wrote this piece. You have the control to shape your sessions to get the most from your players, but at the end of the day, they are still children wanting to learn and have FUN! Mix up your sessions, allow the player's opportunities to be creative away from the confines of the official rules and let them play!
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