Friday, September 4, 2015

Do 70% of kids actually drop out of sports by the age of 13?

By Brian Timmons, PhD

70% of kids drop out of sports by the age of 13. Really? When I read that statistic I was intrigued, so I investigated. What I found was surprising.

The first time I saw that statistic was last year in an article entitled: "Why kids quit sports" – a post on the Active for Life website. After several email communications, that story has since been revised, but at the time, one of the statements in this post that tweaked my interest was the following: "... of the 20 million kids in the U.S. that sign up yearly for team sports like hockey, soccer, and baseball, almost 70 percent will quit by the time they're 13. The number of kids in Canada is different, but the percentage is the same."
Photo by Edward N. Johnson / CC BY 2.0 

The statement now reads, "...of the 20 million kids in the U.S. that sign up yearly for team sports like hockey, soccer, and baseball, almost 70 percent will quit by the time they're 13 (according to Michigan State University). The number of kids in Canada is different, but it's reasonable to assume the percentage is similar." (At least that’s what it read at the time I wrote this).

I had 2 problems with the original, and the revised, statement. First, I thought the 70% drop-out statistic seemed high. Second, I was not aware of similar Canadian data, even though the author of the post first seemed sure and later thought it reasonable that the percentage is the same in Canada.

This particular post essentially recycled an Australian media story that was published the year before. That Australian column referred to a report by the National Alliance for Youth Sports. Following some of my own investigation, including email contact with the National Alliance, I found out that the original report was prepared in 1989, and the survey data were collected no later than 1987, because the survey questions were based on participation in the upcoming 1987-1988 school year – almost 30 years ago.

I was unable to obtain the original 1989 report on-line, but I found two subsequent reports, one published in 1993 and one in 1997 by the same authors. Both the 1993 and 1997 reports were based on the same data originally provided in 1989.

This is where it gets interesting.

After reading these reports, it was clear that several statements in the Active for Life post required clarification. Here is each of those statements and what I found out by actually reading the 1993 and 1997 reports:

Statement #1: "Almost 70 percent will quit by the time they're 13."
The 1993 and 1997 documents report participation in slightly different ways, which makes it confusing to follow. Actual participation estimates for non-school sports (note, non-school sports) can be found in Table 11 of the 1993 report. The numbers in Table 11 refer to the "percent of individuals, by chronological age, who joined or will join selected non-school sports teams during the 1987-1988 school year". While it is true that some sports had fewer kids participating at different ages, this report was based on a cross-sectional study that asked kids of different ages, not a study that followed the same kids over time. And differences in participation rates were not uniform across the different sports. Moreover, it is clear that participation in school sports (note, school sports) increased with age (see Table 14). Interestingly, the highest increase in school sports participation for 8 of the 10 sports came from age 12 to... wait for it... 13. On the other hand, the 1997 document reports the "percent of participants, by age, who indicated that they will not play next year, a sport they played this year" (see Table 20.3). It is true that for some sports, the percentage of kids who indicated they will not play a sport increased by 70% or more at different ages. But on average, compared to 10-yr-old kids in the survey, 53% more (not 70%) 13-yr-old kids indicated they will not play a sport next year, that they played this year. It is also important to note that these numbers only reflect intent. It is very possible that these kids ended up playing that sport. It is also possible that even more kids decided not to participate. The point is... either way... we don't know.

Statement #2: "And, what's worse, they'll quit permanently. As in they'll never play that sport again."
This statement was very surprising, because in the 1997 report (Page 5), the authors (referring to their own data collected in 1987 – almost 30 years ago) wrote: "Data about the athlete's subsequent sports participation after he/she ceased to participate in the sports of reference were not obtained nor did the investigators learn how many other sports were played by the athletes who 'dropped out' of the specific sports." So, even the authors of the original report couldn't be sure whether quitting was permanent. Remember, the data collected represented what kids were going to do during the 1987-1988 school year; it was a snapshot in time, almost 30 years ago.

Statement #3: "The number of kids in Canada is different, but the percentage is the same."
This statement was the most surprising. We've now established that the 70% statistic is highly suspect, so I don't know where the author of the post is getting the Canadian data. If the Canadian source is available, I would love to read it.

The second time I saw the 70% statistic was more recently in a Calgary Herald article by Tom Babin. In that article, Mr. Fred Engh was interviewed and he offered the 70% statistic. Since Mr. Engh is the founder, director, and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, I'm assuming that he is referring to the report that came out in 1989 (but I didn't ask him). I did contact Mr. Babin, however, and to his credit, he posted a note at the bottom of the article acknowledging that he could not independently confirm the 70% number. Just try Googling "Why kids quit sports". You will see several other examples where this 70% drop-out statistic has been reported widely (and recklessly) across the internet, with complete disregard for the original source or its validity, including a TEDx talk!  The TEDx speaker was very passionate... unfortunately the premise for his talk was completely false.

So, what's my point with all this? Well, first… I wish people posting things on social media websites, reporters, and others, would actually demonstrate a little due diligence when it comes to fact checking (kudos to Mr. Babin, though, for making that change). But really, my point is that kids dropping out of sports is an important issue and should be highlighted and discussed. But let's highlight it, and any other issue of public interest, with the facts. How many kids actually drop out of sport today? Does anyone know? If the facts are not readily available we should ask why that is. We should use current evidence to inform the discussion. We should avoid making false statements that happen to make a catchy headline.

So next time you read that 70% of kids drop out of sports by the age of 13, don't be alarmed. Chances are somebody is referring to a 30-yr-old study that didn't actually come to that conclusion.


  1. Brian,
    Thanks for investigating this. I've wondered the same thing about the 70% statistic. I'm a sports medicine surgeon who's highly involved with youth sports. I've heard many of my colleagues use this number to advance their narrative on what's wrong with youth sports today. I think it's very important that we actually use good science and facts to help direct future policy decisions.


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