Tuesday 16 January 2018

Teens must be convinced post-primary sport is worth the hassle

Step from mini rugby to club involvement must be made easier, says Brendan Fanning

Captain Marion Doolan lifted the plate on behalf of her side
Captain Marion Doolan lifted the plate on behalf of her side
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Some years ago, a club's under 12 squad was having an end-of-season medal presentation with all the usual trimmings. It was the last stop in the cycle of mini rugby, and around the corner was secondary school and all that would bring.

When the main coach had told them what great progress they had made – a fair number of them would have been together since the age of seven – and what an enjoyable journey it had been to that point, his assistant decided to follow up with a few words. Mistake.

The theme of the second speech was solely valedictory. He wished the lads well and hoped that they would look back fondly on their first years in the game, stopping short of doing a Vera Lynn impression. Those who were in the business of retaining these kids in the club through youth rugby and their teens, and hopefully beyond, were horrified.

That scene came to mind last week in Malahide at a very useful conference, attended by the four home unions, on player participation and engagement in the 16-24 age group. The keynote speaker was Dr Pete Lunn, of the ESRI, whose presentation was drawn from his report last year, 'Keeping them in the Game'.

If you went along with some fixed ideas on why it is that rugby loses 18 per cent of its players in the gap between secondary school and what happens next then you might have been surprised. It's not all about burnout for those who have been flogged towards St Patrick's Day, and can't cope – or have no interest in coping – with the game as it is structured beyond the private schools' gates

According to Lunn, there are a handful of roadblocks to be negotiated in the life of any athlete, from when they take up sport in primary school to when they sign off as adults. The trick is to recognise those obstacles and figure out a way around them.

The first is leaving primary school. There is a 50 per cent drop-off in playing numbers between kids' final year of mini rugby at under 12, and their first of schools/youth rugby at under 13. This may be because of a shift in family life, so overnight they are travelling a greater distance to a school with longer hours, which may have implications for transport and childcare and the amount of time left to continue what they had been doing happily up to that point. Whatever, things are not as they were before, and unless we can adapt to facilitate these changes – to make it more convenient to stay on board – then the drop-out rate will continue. Incidentally, that figure is across all sports, not just rugby.

The next roadblock is exams: Junior and Leaving Cert. In the former it's the first state exam and may involve a shift in emphasis from parents, so grinds and supervised study come over the horizon and sport can get caught in the crossfire. In the latter the pressure is ramped up hugely, for with the points race in full swing the only thing you can see is the finish line and what score you can achieve. For many that means bye bye sport, even if the stats support the combination of study with regular physical activity. Next comes

leaving school altogether, either going to college or straight into the workforce or maybe leaving the country for either of those options. Rugby loses 18 per cent at this point. That's not bad compared to the GAA's haemorrhage of 50 per cent between 16 years of age and post secondary school, but it's still a lot of bodies.

Unlike soccer, which benefits from ease of organisation, rugby is harder to set up, and if you're doing that for people who are under pressure from other quarters then it's a harder sale to make. But it's doable. And the time to start is at the first pressure point: leaving primary school. That's when you need to congratulate your kids for having got to that stage – and reveal how much fun it will be hanging around for the next.

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