Teens leaving team sport in their dust

The largest areas of concern were the “early sport adopters” – four to nine year-olds – and older adolescents.

“During 2019 and 2020, they didn’t have preschool, they didn’t have school, they didn’t have sports, and they didn’t have opportunities to actually learn fundamental movement skills and physical literacy and learn to catch and throw,” Eime said.

“So with the absence of all of that for two years, how do they come into sport if they don’t have the skills, the confidence and competence to play?”

For those between 16 and 17 with an interest in sports like Australian Rules, returning after COVID-19 meant entering immediately into an open-age category which pitted them against opponents between 18 and 30 years of age.

“You’re in the reserves, and you haven’t played for two years, put on a few kilos, are not very fit. You’re not going to rock up,” Eime said.

Junior AFL participation has been “patchy” since 2019, according to the league’s executive general manager of game development, Rob Auld, with the most consistent decline in seven to eight-year-olds – young boys particularly.

“They are your next generation of coach, the next generation of volunteer, the next generation of administrators,” Auld said.

“So, it’s not just the immediate impact of a decline in their participation. This is a potential longer-term issue for the game.”

Auld said there had been an uptick in female participation, but noted the importance of critically analysing the data to avoid “falling into a false sense of security” as general participation continued on a downward trend.

“The fantastic and spectacular growth of girls and women playing needs to be taken into account when you’re looking at your overall participation because it has the potential to misrepresent the participation of boys and men,” Auld said.

At the Gisborne Rookies north-west of Melbourne where Jensen Pollard played, players are down by a quarter compared to before the pandemic.

The club’s junior development officer Matt McKenzie said about 20 players had come back after round three of this season including some from families who returned from interstate travel during the past two years.

“It’s taken a long time to get that buy in,” he said.

In March, McLachlan told The Age getting back the lost 10-14 year-olds back into local sport was the AFL’s biggest challenge at community level.

“I think it’s that age group that are teenagers, socialisation is important, and they’ve leant into their phones, and digitally and sort of started living in their screens,” McLachlan said.

“That’s what I believe and there’s, at that age, they’re starting to live independently and broader. It’s harder for parents to say, ‘C’mon, we’re getting out of the house and we’re going to training’. ”

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Annette Maloney, president of the Port Colts Junior Football Club committee, said there was initially some concern around the number of children returning to the oval in 2022, particularly for those under 10.

They offered a 50 per cent discount on the general registration fee for girls under 10 and made personal calls to families to “cajole” them into returning for the season.

Although confident junior AFL participation would eventually make a comeback, Auld said they were open to considering altering the sport’s format to make it more appealing, affordable and accessible for younger children. This included potentially shortening games and playing different days of the week.

“We’re not at a position where I feel like the future of the game is at risk, but we are realistic in our assessment of post-COVID. There are pockets of participation, seven or eight-year-old boys and girls, and certainly youth male, where we are focusing our energy on making sure that we’re maximising the return of the game.”

According to an AusPlay survey of more than 20,000 Australian residents (updated in 2022), fewer Australians are relying on sporting clubs or organised venues for exercise. Instead, they are turning to independent activities that can be done in a “COVID safe” manner and closer to home.

The number of people walking, mountain biking and doing Pilates have increased, as well as online forms of exercise like online yoga or console games like Wii Sports. According to the survey, participation in these forms of physical activity have increased 100-fold between 2019 and 2021.

Based on AusPlay data, junior netball participation has dropped from 320,528 children in 2019 to 291,683 in 2021, according to a spokesman from Netball Australia.

“As lifestyle, economic and technology sectors have evolved, so too has the way people engage with sport and physical activity. This has only been accelerated through COVID,” they said.

The sporting body was optimistic that numbers would begin to rise during the second half of this year and into next, however, which internal data seemed to suggest was a possibility.

“Netball is the ultimate team sport, a place to belong, be your best and be bold. Netball Australia is committed to ensuring as many Australians as possible enjoy the benefits that physical activity, and in particular netball, has to their health and wellbeing.”

Football Australia recorded a 21 per cent decline in community football programs last year, citing COVID-19 and the inability to promote the programs through A-League matches, gala days, fan days or community visits.

Participation in MiniRoos Victoria decreased from 31,822 children in 2019 to 24,112 in 2021. Although female involvement rose by 3 per cent, overall participation shrank.

Bucking the trend, participation rates within basketball in Victoria have actually increased. Against all odds, more young children and adolescents are picking up a basketball in place of a football, netball or soccer ball.

The latest AusPlay data showed basketball was one of the few sports showing growth following COVID-19.

They recorded 9.9 per cent growth during term one and two this year compared to last. In 2021, despite the interruptions caused through COVID-19, some states saw participation increase by 13.6 per cent comparative to 2019.

“The success of basketball can be attributed to a number of factors, like Australians being drafted into NBA, good pathways to USA Colleges – we have over 450 athletes currently in the US college system – success of the Boomers and Opals,” a spokesperson from Basketball Victoria said.

They said their concern lay with the lack of facilities due to the growth experienced over the past 10 years, but they are “dedicating significant resources to recruiting, developing and retaining coaches”.

Sports appeared to become less of a priority for school-age children who were desperately trying to make up for missed formals, travel and time with friends. But the absence of team sports meant fewer opportunities to engage in social connectedness, as well as poorer mental health, life satisfaction and resilience.

“We know that if kids are involved in sport when they’re younger, they’re more likely to be physically active when they’re older. That can have a whole range of implications in terms of obesity and a range of chronic diseases,” Eime said.

“Sport for kids, they learn a whole range of skills that you don’t get in many other settings. Learning teamwork, learning to win or to drive to achieve, learning about leadership, about dedication or about commitment.”

Sport for kids, they learn a whole range of skills that you don’t get in many other settings. Learning teamwork, learning to win or to drive to achieve, learning about leadership, about dedication or about commitment

Professor Rochelle Eime

Lisa Hasker, chief executive of Vicsport said they planned to gather data at the end of winter to see how sports have been affected by falling participation rates.

In the face of dwindling numbers, Eime said there was greater need to improve physical education within schools and for more quality opportunities to run parallel alongside competitive sports to help children get back into the groove.

“We need to have quality preschool educators in schools or primary schools, but unless it’s part of NAPLAN, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she said.

“We also need more sports to think about having other opportunities for kids who don’t necessarily have those skills or maybe want a non-competitive focus model to be able to come and get those skills and play games but maybe not in the traditional competitive club.”

With Jackson Graham

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