Keeping the kids in the sport
Where do all the J17's go?
If you've been around bike racing for a while (more than the average parent of a competing kid, ie: a 'generation' or so), you'll probably have noticed something.
There's stacks of J11's, J13's, J15's and even plenty of J17's, but then .. there's a big gap until you get to masters.
What happens? Why is this so, and can we do anything about it?
Here's my hypothesis for why :
The young kids race each other, it's a very supportive environment, in particularly at track races. There's lots of races and a reasonably small pool of people to race against, when the pool is small, the competition is reasonably close, so little Johnny has peers to race with. There's a lot of coaching for the kids (loads of enthusiastic parents, coaches looking for a ride to glory on the coat-tails of the Next Great Champion and so on ...). The kids aren't really expected to win when they race adults, so they don't develop much emotional resilience - they don't learn how to cope with losing when they've tried their hardest in an environment which is emotionally committed. There's been a few papers written on the emotional side of what happens when talented kids grow up and it starts to get harder to win but none I can find with google right now.
As the kids grow up, more start to race, in general. By this I mean that there's more J15's than there is J13's and J11's. The competition gets tougher but they're all still on restricted gearing so the really strong ones can't whip the less strong, it's a pretty level playing field.
Then they get to J17 and J19, and they're often thrown into higher grades against adults, their gearing isn't as restricted so their strength starts to make the differences bigger, and the ones that aren't the top of the tree win less, and less, and less ... After a while they get sick of losing all the time, and quit. Who can blame them? The coaches are losing interest in them, they haven't made the state squad because they're only the 6th fastest pursuiter in the state and so on. They may have talent, it may take more time to develop, kids grow physically and emotionally at very different rates. What happens to the almost-good-enough riders?
Bike racing (except round robin match sprinting) is a very cruel sport. If you play footy, cricket, hockey etc, on average, you're going to win 50% of the time. This is the nature of team sports with round robin competitions. If you race bikes, on average, you don't win very often, a few stars win just about everything, the rest of us have to find something to take home from our races that makes us feel good, or we quit. To add to the stacked odds, 99% of bike racing at amateur level is individual. So, not only aren't you winning very much unless you're a star, you don't have the team support around you to help, to dilute the failure. The footy player gets to play with their club, in a grade that's appropriate for their abilities and they get finals to compete for and so on. In cycling, there's no such thing. At least, not here. Show up at Glenvale this summer in D grade and you're racing 80 other cyclists every week. That's a 1:80 chance. Most riders once they reach senior ranks rarely if ever actually win a race.
So the kids give it up. They sometimes come back in their late 20's or as masters, when they've grown up enough to know that there's more to sport than winning, that competition in itself can bring out the best in them, but who expects most teenagers to get that? Some do, and I'm lucky enough to know a couple of them, but I suspect they're in the minority. If they weren't, all those J17's from two years ago would be racing J19 and senior racing. They're not.
The same thing happens in athletics too, but I don't know enough about that sport to comment, I expect it happens in a lot of individual sports once the kids get to 17 or so years old and it all gets a lot tougher.
So what can we do to keep them? Not just the super-talented ones (although losing them is bad, some just take more time to shine), but the good, hard working but not top of the heap riders? I have a few ideas, I'd like to see more teams racing across the grades, which I think would help, but do you have any other suggestions? Am I full of it or is the above close to the mark? What do we do as a sport to encourage and retain the kids that won't ever win an A grade race?
Edit: Some feedback I've received on this :
As the kids get older their social life increases, they want to spend time with their friends and girlfriends and boyfriends. Most partners are not prepared to sit at a cycling event and watch their other half go around or disappear in the distance for hours on end - they want to be doing other things. And their friends don't really want to come and watch either. Secondly study starts to impact this age kids, they are starting to enter VCE territory and this impacts greatly on their time which doesn't leave time for training and competing as well. A third reason is that other sports also come along that their friends invite them to join, most very little outlay compared to bikes, and again they are with their everyday friends. Lastly they start to get part time jobs - most in retail - and these impact the most at weekends and after school, with the long trading hours we have in Vic.