Halting the Decline

March 8, 2019

Like many other school districts nationwide, the one in Greeley-Evans, Colo., is experiencing a troubling trend in its athletics program. While middle school sports participation is robust, the numbers drop significantly at the high school level.

Unlike many other districts, though, Greeley-Evans is working hard to uncover the causes of the problem and find solutions. Over the past year, Robert Billings, District Athletic Director, has spearheaded an effort that includes discussions, surveys, and new initiatives.

“First we’re trying to figure out why kids stop playing sports when they get to high school,” he says. “Then, we’re identifying the things that are working to increase participation, as well as those that aren’t. And we are looking for ideas we haven’t tried yet that might be of some benefit.”

The middle-to-high-school participation decline at Greeley-Evans is most prevalent in girls’ basketball, which had 420 middle school participants last year but just 77 at the high school level. Football is more typical of the overall numbers, with 540 players at the middle schools and 230 competing in high school. “Even when we account for students who attend charter high schools or high schools in other districts, we’re still losing at least half the kids who play in middle school,” Billings says.

Each year, at district open house events for middle schoolers, high school athletics are promoted. “We come away from those with tons of kids signing interest sheets in various sports,” Billings says. “However, they aren’t getting involved once they get to the high school campus.”

The first part of the solution has been discussion. Billings has met several times with the building athletic directors for Greeley-Evans’ three high schools to brainstorm solutions. On individual campuses, the athletic directors regularly talk about increasing turnout with their coaches, who in turn do what they can to find out why athletes decide to stop playing in high school.

A survey is also in the works, which will be distributed to athletes, their families, and support personnel. “The questions to athletes are mostly about their interactions with coaches, but some relate to their plans to continue playing,” says Billings.

While the results of the survey won’t be available until late spring, a few main reasons for the decline have started bubbling to the top. One is school choice, which makes it harder for high school coaches to identify and connect with the kids who will be coming to their school. Another is the added family responsibilities some students face as they reach high school age. “We have a high poverty rate in our district,” Billings says. “Once kids get to the age when they can work, many of them have to get a part-time job instead of playing a sport.”

Academic pressures also come into play. “Some students are concerned about handling both athletics and academics successfully,” Billings says.

But the barrier that needs the most creative solution is young people’s fear of failure. Billings believes many middle schoolers are concerned that they won’t be able to compete at the next level. “Kids are different today,” he says. “If they experience adversity, they’re not as likely to work through it. It’s up to us to find ways to address that.”

Billings says the most successful efforts have happened when coaches from more than one high school pool their efforts. “For the past few years, our three head football coaches have held a combined football camp for elementary and middle school students,” he says. “This gives the younger players a chance to learn who the coaches are and meet some of the players—to establish connections with them so high school football isn’t such a mystery.

“The first year we had about 70 kids and last year we had 250,” Billings continues. “The past couple of years we’ve had some players and coaches from the University of Northern Colorado help out, too.”

In a similar vein, other teams at the three Greeley high schools are reaching out to nearby middle schools, inviting teams to play a game on the high school’s field or in its gym. “We want the middle schoolers to get to know the high school coaches, players, and facilities,” Billings says. “We want them to see that high school isn’t so scary, so they’re comfortable making that transition.”

Ultimately, Billings feels any effort to increase high school participation will hinge more on the informal actions of coaches than on formal events. “In my experience, it’s a combination of numerous small things that have the greatest impact,” he says. “After all, kids don’t want to be pressured—they want to be valued. They want someone to care about them. The small moves coaches make to extend themselves to the younger kids make the biggest difference.”

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