The number of kids participating in organised, competitive sport is declining. It's happening all over the world: rugby in New Zealand, football in England, swimming in Australia.

Kids are just not rushing down to the local sports field, court or pool to play sports the way they did 10 years ago.

This was happening B.C. — before Covid! All that Covid19 has done is accelerate this phenomenon and increase the challenges being faced by sporting organisations around the planet. The question is why?

Reasons why kids are not participating in sport

There are a multitude of theories circling the sporting globe to attempt to explain the falling numbers of sports participants.

"It's the often complex and competing demands of school and sport," some experts propose.

"It's the parents' problem," others argue. "Parents and carers these days are too busy to take their children to sports practice and competition."

"It's society!" is another suggested explanation. "The world has become ‘soft’ and sport, physical activity and hard work are out of place in our short-cut, easy-way, minimal-effort lazy lifestyles."

National sporting organisations, government sporting departments, coaches, officials and academics everywhere are all trying to figure out why the number of children participating in organised competitive sport around the world has been falling for more than a decade.

Inevitably, the reflections and discussions attempting to explain declining sports participation rates come down to the discovery of a battlefield where two combatants - sports and screens - are waging an all out war for the attention of kids everywhere.

The fight of sports vs screens illuminates the reality that kids are not so much walking away from sport… they're being mesmerised then captured - and held prisoner by - the light of a screen… that they've gone from a life of momentum and movement to being nothing more than motionless moths inextricably drawn to the flickering flame of smart devices, laptops and gaming consoles.

What is the solution?

So how can sport win the sports vs screens battle?

Let's begin with what isn't the solution! It is folly in the extreme to expect that kids will turn off their screens and come happily hopping back down the road to your football field or tennis court or swimming pool and politely ask "please coach, can I have some more?"

Screens are here to stay and if you don't believe me mom or dad… why not turn yours off for 20 minutes and feel the cold sweat start almost immediately as your own FOMO (fear of missing out) takes hold and you begin to tremble and shake uncontrollably at the thought of not being able to watch those incredibly important videos of cats playing pianos and celebrity court-case updates on your smartphone.

Sports can't beat screens. The battle is over, and screens won… but sports can win the war!

Screens have actually shown us the way to beat them at their own (ahem) game. The next time you walk past a child playing on a screen...just pause for a moment and watch, really watch, and watch closely.

What you will see is:

  • your child doing something they enjoy;
  • they're doing it with their friends and sometimes with their family;
  • the screen is constantly changing, adapting and responding to their actions;
  • they receive immediate and instant acknowledgement for their efforts and attempts regardless of their level of skill and experience;
  • they receive immediate recognition for their successes and when they do fail, they're only more motivated and energised to keep trying again and again and again until they get it right.

They are engaged, they are having fun, they are doing it with their friends who are also engaged and having fun and if you really think turning off the device and dragging them down to the local football field to run lap after mindless lap is good parenting then you have a nasty shock ahead of you.

Now, by way of contrast, go down to your local sporting field and watch what's happening there.

Typically you'll observe:

  • kids doing the same thing, the same way over and over and over;
  • coaches standing by watching, counting, measuring but not engaging, inspiring or acknowledging efforts;
  • parents on the sideline (who all seem to know more than the coach), all expounding the virtues and gifts of their "talented" child;
  • the better kids getting more attention than the less talented ones;
  • training sessions based on the development of physical capabilities like endurance and speed and not on just developing a love of playing;
  • training sessions where the element of ‘play’ is secondary to the development of skills and techniques.

Do you want to know the real reason why kids are walking away from sport? Because we let adults — or rather adult thinking — replace the real reasons sport exists: to have fun, to learn, to make friends and to be connected with other people who enjoy doing the same things. Together.

We need to make sport — training, practice, preparation and competition — more engaging, more exciting and more enjoyable.

We need to forget all that stuff about improving a child's oxygen-carrying capability and stabilising their ‘core’ and focus instead on making sport centred on fun, friendships and families.

We need to move on from yelling slogans and quoting Michael Jordan motivational sayings to our kids in the hope that we'll inspire them to fame and fortune and just tell them, so that they know with absolute certainty, that we love them unconditionally, we accept them and we value them for who they are as human beings regardless of their sports performance.

The only child who doesn't improve at sport is the one who isn't coming any more and right now from London to Lisbon, from Melbourne to Munich and from Cape Town to Quebec — they ain't comin’.

Our priority as coaches, as parents, as carers, as sports administrators is not to produce the occasional champion, but to create safe, enjoyable, rewarding, sporting environments which give every child the opportunity to fall in love with sport because when you love what you do, you will do what you love.