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October 5, 2020 • Athletic Administration

A.D.ministration: 10 Tips to Combat Participation Decline

Other than a slight participation decline in the number of football and basketball players for the 2018-19 school year, the overall rates for all sports around the country are still very solid and strong for the last 30 years. The national results as compiled by the National Federation of State Associations (NFHS) indicate that girls’ volleyball, soccer, and lacrosse have registered increases, and boys’ soccer, wrestling, and tennis added participants in the past year.

This does not mean, however, that some individual high schools around the country don’t face challenges and a possible decline. Since all settings are somewhat unique and communities have diverse situations, you may find fewer young people joining your teams.  

The first step in combating this problem is to understand some of the underlying reasons that you may be seeing a participation decline. The following represents some of the logical, common, and identifiable possibilities or contributing factors for your lower turnout.

  • Community and travel teams have grown in number and popularity. Some parents see these alternatives as the route to a college scholarship. As a result, non-school teams may have siphoned off some of the better athletes who would have normally been part of your program in previous years.
  • Students have more activities and ways of spending their time outside of the classroom which serves as competition to your program. Video games, esports, part-time jobs, and sports not sanctioned or sponsored within your state association framework all represent alternatives for young people which may take them away from your high school program.
  • After years of playing on the youth-level, some athletes may become burned out and leave the sport. Specialization often compounds and adds to this phenomenon. In addition, some young people also tire of the pressure and expectations placed upon them by their parents and decide that it is no longer enjoyable or worth it.
  • In an effort to cover budget shortfalls and to avoid cutting teams, pay-for-play initiatives have unfortunately been instituted by some schools. Due to this negative philosophical approach, there are families who are unwilling to pay for a child who may not start or see considerable playing time. As a result, squad sizes often decrease in school programs which balance the budget with participation fees.
participation decline
Photo: Phil Roeder / Creative Commons

These four possible reasons for a decline in participants are not meant to be an all-inclusive list.  There may be others in your particular setting. By determining the reasons, however, provides you with areas in which you can take definite steps in order to turn things around. You might consider the following suggestions.

  1. Look to hire coaches who have the energy and personality to go out and attract athletes to their program. This may mean that they will have to go into lunch periods and engage students in the hallways. In essence, these coaches are actively recruiting within the school.
  2. Periodically remind your coaches that the number one reason young people participate in sports is to have fun. This does not mean that they should abandon teaching skills, preparing their team, and trying to win games, but student-athletes want to enjoy the experience with their friends. It is vital that coaches never forget this very simple, but vital fact. When practice sessions become overly tedious and a win-at-all-cost prevails, you run the risk that some students will look for other possible outlets. It is important for coaches to keep their approach as positive as possible, help young people to grow, develop, and win, and the participation rate will take care of themselves.
  3. Ascertain if it would be advantageous to add a new sport to meet student interest.  This can be done by surveying your students. However, you also have to be aware of what other schools in the area may offer this sport. Without other teams in the area, it would be extremely difficult to create a schedule for competition. For maximum participation, however, it is extremely important to offer what your young people want whenever possible.
  4. Appeal to athletes on teams with a small squad size to bring along a friend to watch a practice session, meet some of the other students on the team, and to encourage these young people to consider joining. This would not work well on the varsity level but could help to add a few participants on the lower levels which are, by nature, the developmental teams. And this also goes back to the basic reason that young people participate in athletics is to have fun with their friends. Use this factor to try and attract a few more players.
  5. Host clinics for middle school students and ‘introduce’ a sport, which may be unfamiliar and in need of participants. Even for popular, well-manned teams, this is a good technique to promote your athletic program. If you use your current varsity athletes to help at this clinic, it will also provide an opportunity for younger students to get to know and form a bond with your high school team members.
  6. Help to create middle school and community recreational leagues for sports which may have experienced a decline in athletes trying out. Your part in this effort would be to put together an organizational committee, provide ideas and a sample league constitution, and how to attract and train coaches. In essence, these teams represent a feeder program which is critical in order to increase the number of potential participants.
  7. Schedule informational meetings with middle school parents to introduce the philosophical concept of education-based athletics and what you offer in your program. With competition from community-based travel teams, this informative effort is an important step to outline the benefits of your program. This step may help to ensure the vitality of your high school program and to maintain or improve participation levels.
  8. Arrange for parent meetings in addition to those in which you promote the benefits of your program to also explain the dangers of specialization. It is extremely helpful to start these educational initiatives early in the middle school years and promote the multi-sport approach.
  9. Involve parents and the community in your fund-raising initiatives. The additional monies are vital to help with the operation of your program and to stave off the last result of having to use a pay-for-play system. Explaining the objective of your fund-raising efforts is key to getting community support which can come in the form of volunteers, donations, and actual participation in the events. 
  10. Invite middle school and community teams to pre-determined, designated varsity games.  In this manner, young athletes and their parents get to see your team in action, meet and interact with your players, and the coaches after the game. This effort obviously has to be planned and organized so that the youth teams have proper adult supervision and that you have seating and other arrangements in place to make a good impression.

To combat participation decline, it may take some creativity, planning, and hard work. But it can be turned around and it all starts with you.