More and more adolescents are “drop outs” in the Danish football and handball clubs

Of course, the bottom line of any account is important, but the revenues and expenses can also be very interesting. And sometimes the most important information is the notes of the account with small founts. This was the case when the two largest sports organizations in Denmark – The Sports Confederation of Denmark (DIF) and The Danish Gymnastics and Sports Clubs (DGI) – a few days ago announced their current number of memberships. An increase of 26,158 unique memberships – of which 20,167 or nearly four out of five were elderly people more than 60 years of age – created almost euphoria in the boards and the managements of the two sports organizations. It is rare that an increase of 1.1% gets so many words of praise along the way. But as the two sports organizations common press release showed, “progress was crucial in achieving the goal of becoming the most sporting nation in the World”. And as long as it can be signaled to the outside world that everything is going well, there is no danger of fewer – or maybe there is anyway.

Recruiting children under the age of 12 to sports is relatively “easy”

Before the euphoria in the two sports organizations comes completely out of control, there is many reasons to focus on the biggest challenge for the organized sports in Denmark. A challenge that was not mentioned with one single sentence in the press release of DIF and DGI. Unfortunately, there is a fact that more and more adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 drop out of team sports such as football and handball – Denmark’s two most profiled sports. Either historically or currently, it has never been a major challenge to motivate children under the age of 12 – or their paying parents – to become a member of a sports club, because there is no better and cheaper “care system” for girls and boys under the age of 12. For this reason, the proportion of memberships among children under the age of 12 is very high (70-75%) in Denmark compared to other countries and very constantly over time. The most popular sports for children under the age of 12 are gymnastics (168,050), football (130,930), swimming (147,840), handball (48,175), badminton (22,505) and horse riding (19,837).

Large dropout rate among football and handball boys between 13-18 years

Until a few years ago, the number of adolescents aged 13-18 who were members of a sports federation was also relatively high and constantly over time. But over the past five years, there have been some very sad trends that should give board members, high performance managers and coaches, both in the two sports organizations – DIF and DGI – and federations such as The Danish Football Association (DBU) and The Danish Handball Federation (DHF), serious frowns. The number of DIF-memberships aged between 13 and 18 has, in the past year, “only” decreased from 250,709 to 250,541. However, the modest number of “drop outs” among the adolescents covers significant differences between individual sports and team sports. The number of 13-18-year-old players in DBU’s clubs has fallen over the past year from 75,409 to 72,697 – i.e. 2,712 players or 4% have “drop out” of the football clubs. This continues the sad trends of the past five years, with 6,887 girls and boys – or 12% – “drop outs” of the football clubs. Many of these players are certainly also “resource persons” who could be potential coaches or volunteer leaders in the club now or later in life.

Teenagers find it difficult to combine sports and youth education

Even worse is the number of drop outs among the young handball players. There are currently 24,442 handball players registered in DHF between 13 and 18 years, which is 2,450 or nearly 10% fewer than 5 years ago and 6,668 or more than 20% fewer than 10 years ago. The catastrophic decrease has also meant that fewer and fewer handball clubs are able to collect seven players for the U-14, U-16 and U-18 tournaments and even worse, the players need to spend “expensive” time at the weekend to get into matches or tournaments in the “other regions of Denmark”. If this development goes on in the future, one should not look far until DHF and the handball clubs can spend all their efforts on children’s handball or activities such as “Handball Fitness” and “Five-a-side Handball”.

There are many and complex reasons why adolescents drop out of team sports such as football and handball. Many adolescents find it very difficult to maintain their commitment to team sports when they begin at the secondary schools, where many, especially girls, drop out of team sports for the benefit of homework, leisure jobs, boyfriends and fitness in commercial centres. For many male players, the dream of a professional life remains at the top of the list of priorities in relation to lessons and grades at the beginning of the secondary school. Quickly, they learn that the demands in the secondary schools cannot be met with a modest effort and a lot of time per week spent on training and matches. Or, they are drop out of the football or handball club due to lack of skills or an “unsatisfactory and inadequate” training effort.

Team sports such as soccer and handball have a number of qualities that are not found in individual sports: dependence on the other team mates’ performance, agreements that create social development and common victories, new team mates who increase the team and their own chances of success and much, much more. Yes – in fact, I think that collaboration and feeling of community in a football or handball team is a unique democratic process and a kind of community where the team is always bigger and more important than the individual. And that value and these qualities needs today’s adolescents more than ever before.

One-sided focus on results and outdated tournament structure are the main reasons for “dropouts”

In my opinion, too many football and handball clubs has too much focus on results and an outdated tournament structure with too much time spent on transportation and matches every weekend as well as inflexible rules in relation to players’ age categories will – unfortunately – have a very large number of “drop outs” in football and handball clubs in the future. More than ever before, there is a need for new visions, creativity and concrete proposals – both in DBU, DHF and in the football and handball clubs – if the clubs must continue to recruit and not least maintain the adolescents in the clubs. If this does not happen, the two sports organizations, the two federations – DBU and the DHF – and the clubs, seriously fail their most important core task: Sports for children and youth.