Attrition in junior membership numbers — can we encourage “drop-ins”?

Really interesting from Professor Catherine Woods of University of Limerick in her presentation “Youth Sport Dropout: Prevention is Better than Cure” at the iCoachKids (virtual) Conference on 2nd December 2020.

Professor Woods’ main focus was on ways of keeping junior players engaged with sport as they get a little older (see below for a link to the presentation).

But something else she said really chimed with me — some sports seem to get a second intake of “drop-ins”, with junior participants transferring in from another sport.

Dropout does not have to mean STOP. Sport specific dropout does not have to lead to sport general dropout.

Professor Catherine Woods, University of Limerick

But this begs the question — what can cricket do to facilitate “drop-in”?

Drop-ins

“Drop-ins” are defined here as players joining a new sport relatively late (sometimes after starting secondary school), most often after playing other sports when they were younger.

The challenge

Data on player “transfers” is lacking, and iCoachKids plan more longitudinal studies to track children’s ongoing involvement with sport, but the numbers they have do tell a tale.

See Dr Sergio Lara-Bercial and Dr Stacey Emmonds presentation on “Dropout trends in the European Union” [link to YouTube]

Dropout rates can be alarmingly high. And whilst some sports get a “second intake” of participants to partially replace dropouts, others simply haemorrhage players.

There were no numbers for cricket. Given the challenges of reporting the number of adult participants, I’m not surprised. Even at my own Club, although we knew that we lost a lot of junior members, especially around u13, we could not generate any data.

But you only had to look at the numbers at junior practice on a Friday evenings — 12 or so in the u9 softball group, 15-20 in the u11s, the same in the u13s, maybe 2 nets worth (if we were lucky) at u15-16. The u15s & u16s often only field a team if they include 2 or 3 of the best of the u13s, even outside exam season.

Understandable — there are lots of alternatives for 15 & 16 year olds in the summer, not least GCSEs. And you probably have to expect that you will lose players, as sports changes from “just a game” to something a bit more competitive.

aside (1)  — does sport really need to get more competitive as players get older?

But the few new faces we ever saw were friends-of-friends, or ambitious players who had fallen out with their “home” club and wanted a new start. I can’t recall seeing many “athletes” keen to try a new sport.

You were either a cricketer at 11, or you were not.

From the online chat going on around Professor Woods’ presentation, it was suggested that late entry is more challenging for “high (perceived) skill” sports. I would guess that the cost of equipment is also a factor — the older the player, the more kit you need!

aside (2) — do you really need more kit to play recreational cricket?

What can be done?

Yes, we want to reduce drop-out rates, but how do we make the game more accessible to late-entry, to encourage drop-ins?

What can be done to enable children to develop the transferable skills to take with them to another sport, and to make the game accessible and welcoming to late(r) entrants?

Coaching

Top players report playing many different sports as children. International batters relate how they developed their unique styles playing hockey or squash.

Coaches might be encouraged to avoid the mono-culture of single sport coaching in favour of a multi-skills environment for younger players. Yes, it will be mostly cricket, but maybe spend some time on fundamental movement skills, play some other sports as warm-up activities (or when the weather makes cricket less attractive).

In doing so, the coach just might be supporting the long-term development of new cricketing talent by giving the players the confidence to sample other sports. And if more kids can catch and throw, kick, jump and run by the time they leave primary school, they might be more likely to transfer to a new sport if they fall out of love with their first.

So a little altruism might just pay-back, over time.

Game formats

Cricket is competitive. And the hard ball does hurt, especially if you aren’t used to it.

And games take too long if you are just “dropping in”.

But the challenge can’t be intractable.

The competitive element will remain, I believe, so what we need is to provide an appropriate level of competition. Drop-ins and other new participants need somewhere to play where the game won’t be monopolised by the u13 “veterans” — maybe softball festivals (which might also address the questions of kit, and getting hurt by a hard ball). No self respecting “veteran” is going to play softball cricket…until they find out how much fun tape-ball is…

The Dynamos Cricket model looks promising. It is aimed at 8-11 year olds, but it looks ideal as an introductory format at any age. Some skills, but the emphasis is on playing a game that looks a lot like “proper” cricket.

Extend this into tape-ball, and you have something to offer the older teens, and even adults.

Tennis balls are cheap, as is electrical tape to bind them. Tape-ball bats aren’t that expensive (not when compared to top grade willow, at least), so could perhaps be provided by the clubs and venues, or by sponsors, even.

Finding somewhere to play could be a challenge — clubs won’t be keen to “give up” a ground when they could be playing hard-ball, so we are looking at “out grounds”.

There might need to be significant financial support to provide suitable pitches — you can play on a grass playing field, but batting could be a lottery.

One model to follow is the excellent NTP installation programme being delivered by the London — the pitches are suitable for “proper” hard ball cricket, but they should also provide an ideal surface for tape ball.

Even the old old concrete strips in local parks and school playing fields (relics from an earlier age of artificial pitches?) could also be used.

It could be done.

Conclusions

Finding a way to encourage drop-ins just might be the way to go for clubs. Retaining the numbers of juniors in the game for longer, potentially recruiting “athletes” into the game, maybe offering a blueprint for extending social cricket beyond Sunday afternoon with the Sunday Bs (very enjoyable, in its way, but impenetrable to a newcomer).


Professor Woods’ presentation

Professor Woods’ full presentation to the iCoachKids conference is here. Lots to take away, including the Keep Youngsters Involved project.

Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; All Stars Cricket Activator & Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire; ECB Coach Developer

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