Examining this phenomenon is what Auckland University of Technology’s Rebecca Beattie decided to do as part of her Master’s thesis. An experienced high school coach, Beattie explains in her introduction that she had “believed that the athletes who dropped out were the ones who were not as able as the rest and therefore their departure was justified.”

Yet this simple explanation didn’t hold up when she heard about mass dropouts of athletes from very successful school programmes. “This made me wonder,” she writes, “what is going on in those environments for these successful athletes to walk away from something they were ‘good’ at?”

Rowers engage in the sport for several reasons, according to Beattie: “A sense of camaraderie and being with friends; the love of being in the boat and the satisfying feeling it produced ... health benefits, the feelings of athleticism, and valuing effort.”

The reasons for dropping out included reduced feelings of competence due to “coach feedback, perceived lack of appreciation of the rowers’ efforts and a focus on outcomes rather than effort and athletes’ goals and values,” writes Beattie. Further reasons included, an impaired sense of autonomy “through limited involvement in the decision making process particularly around options at training, discussions around crew entries and (potential added pressures associated with) being a lightweight rower."

Although Beattie's study was localised to a handful of schools, Beattie’s findings may have broad implications in identifying potential reasons for rower dropout around the world and perhaps more importantly, why rowers do choose to stay involved.

But can a kinder, more athlete-centred approach still produce results?

Focus on community

Community Rowing Inc (CRI) in Boston, United States is just one example of how a broad holistic focus can still bring success along with fostering a lifelong love of the sport. As one of the largest facilitators of rowing in the United States, CRI has developed an athlete-centred philosophy that is at the heart of their operations from youth right through to their elite members.

Bruce Smith, CRI’s Executive Director, points to lack of a good community to row with as a primary cause for teenagers dropping out of the sport, along with busy schedules. “If the team that kids are rowing with provides a healthy and challenging environment and the coaches provide positive leadership, I don’t think people leave,” says Smith.

CRI’s mission statement begins with the words: “Rowing changes lives.” and continues with, “dedicated to fostering a community that is both welcoming and supportive.” These words fit well with Smith’s beliefs. A truly athlete-centred environment, however, can’t simply rely on a solid mission statement; it has to be put into practice on a daily basis.

“We focus exclusively on community building and reaching our full potential,” Smith says. “We state this repeatedly at meetings and with the teams and with coaches, all the time. We also believe that if we do a great job with human development at the junior and masters levels, then people will collect a share of medals as well. But our absolute priority is human development in all aspects of our programming.”

This is in line with Beattie’s research where she noted that “it was clear that all participants initially held a love for the sport, particularly enjoying the family environment created in rowing.”

When asked if competitiveness and community are at odds, Smith replies: “They are absolutely complimentary. The possibility to compete with ourselves and each other creates a bond and is in fact a gift that each kid gives to every other kid on the squad. Every day is more fun because of the healthy competition between kids on each of the squads.”

“The critical point,” Smith adds, “is that the elite performers are absolutely not more important than any other kids. They have the same responsibilities, the same equipment, the same high quality coaching, the same contact time with coaches, and, as much as possible within the confines of the competitive structure of racing in the USA, the same opportunities to race.”

Balance is another area where Smith subconsciously picks up on Beattie’s findings. “I think balance comes from within the sport as much as it does from balancing other activities,” he says. “If the team culture includes an emphasis on complete human development, balanced physical development and strong mental training, then balance in other things will follow.”

“I’m not sure (balance) means that people have to limit their engagement with the sport of rowing, but rather that people teaching the sport need to have a balanced approach to youth development.”

If left unattended, the issues identified in Beattie’s study can alter a teenager’s otherwise positive experience with the sport of rowing. Examples like CRI are becoming more and more the norm as schools and clubs around the world embrace an athlete-centred philosophy.