Retaining Athletes from School Sport.

Some thoughts by Brian Minikin, Lecturer in sport management, University of Stirling


Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) Secretary General, ‘Dato Sieh Kok Chi once asked for opinion on a number of matters that he raised following the observation of the Selangor Volleyball Association Under 14 and Under 16 Championships.

He observed that:

  1. Of the 20 teams participating in the competition, all were essentially school teams.
  2. It was noted that in the current sport structures, realistically only schools could organise teams in these age groups.
  1. State teams selected 20 players into a training squad of which 12 will go on to participate in the national championships.
  2. Players not selected to play in the national championships would not get the opportunity to play again until the following year.
  3. Under this system young players get to play volleyball for only 8 weeks of the year and once the leave school the majority leave the sport and stop playing completely.

‘Dato Sieh Kok Chi then posed the following questions:

  1. Why is the state association organising competition for the schools and not the state schools sports councils?
  2. Why doesn’t the State Association organise adult championship or leagues?
  3. How do we go about retaining people in sport after they leave school?

He suggested that the answer could be that there are no clubs and facilities for school leavers to play many sports in Malaysia, after work. Those who enter universities and colleges can still play, but many would give up sport, to focus on their studies.  One of the reasons is that they might have played too much sport at school level and have become stale and since they are not improving, they simply stop playing.

The purpose of this commentry is to examine how to encourage the school leavers to continue to play sport? In answering this question an attempt will be made to examine the responsibilities for running sport competition and the type of competition framework that might encourage more people to continue to play sport on into adulthood.


The context in which this question is posed has a well-defined sports structure in which the following stakeholders have been identified:

  • Schools
  • Clubs
  • State School Sports Councils
  • State Sport Councils
  • State Sport Associations
  • National Sport Associations
  • National School Sport Association
  • National Sports Council
  • National Olympic Committee

The question asks who should be responsible for organising competitions and activities for the various potential client groups and what are the main factors that retain people to participate in regular organised sporting activity? Client Groups might include:

  • School Children
  • School leavers
  • University Students
  • Young Adults
  • Older Adults
  • People with disabilities or other special needs.
  • Others.

The core business of a sports organisation that is responsible for a particular sport code is to organise regular and frequent competitions or activities for its members, who have been attracted to the organisation because of their kindred interest in a specific type of activity or sport.

The reasons why people play sport are many and varied. Many reasons are given from getting fit, to releasing their tensions or aggressions in a controlled environment. Some like to compete to win, while others enjoy the physical activity itself and the acquisition of skills. Others again join for the social aspects, because their peer group plays a particular sport or it is seen as ‘cool’ to play or take part in a particular sport. Others may just want to meet people and choose a sporting activity that attracts people with similar interests as themselves.

Research shows that it is quite difficult for an individual who has no social connections to a sport club to be able to join in and adapt easily to the competitive sport environment. Also with many people having busy lives, it is getting increasingly difficult to find people who can commit time regularly to a team for training and competition.

To understand how this might work in the Malaysian context it may help to look at the fundamental aspects of sport organisations and sport competitions how they are structured and why, before applying the discussion to the specific question raised above.

The Nature of Competition

A sports competition is considered to be a competitive activity that aims to determine a winning outcome

Consequently, the nature of competitive sport essentially discourages participation. Competition formats ultimately result in a single winner, whether this is achieved via a fleet race system as in athletics, swimming, rowing and sailing, a round robin system where teams or individuals all pay each other with the best performed teams playing off in a grand final, or a knockout competition system commonly seen in racquet sports, combat sports and characterised by a winner goes to the next round while the loser drops out format.

The shedding of participants also applies to the processes used to select teams as described above in referencing the example of the Selangor Volleyball championships. From 20 teams, one team is selected to go onto the next stage of competition, which means that in this example, 5% of the participants will continue to play while the rest return to nothing.

Sports organisations compensate for this by simply offering more competitions so that people can ‘try again’ or by establishing graded competition that allows ‘more people or teams to win’.

In Volleyball, the conduct a similar model of competition that has been described for Malaysia, that is, State or district based competitions that select teams to prepare for National competition that select teams to represent the nation internationally has been accepted as the normal practice for this sport.

Regardless of the competition framework chosen, participation in competitive sport is designed to determine an outcome that essentially recognises an overall winner or champion. Additional incentives to perform are provided by awarding medals for place getters down to third place or implementing a points system that rewards participation and weights points depending on the overall finishing position.

For sports such as athletics, a ‘fleet’ racing format is generally employed where competitors race in heats with the top finishers going on to semi finals and finals. Regardless of the number of competitors there will only be a defined number of finalists, usually 8 and of these, 3 will win medals.

For example, of all the people in the world who race over 100m, around 100 will get the opportunity to race at the Olympic Games and of these only 8 will participate in the final. If the Olympic Games 100m final was the only significant race held over this distance and this only occurs every four years, then it is going to be difficult to retain people in this particular sporting event.

In a major tennis tournament, exactly 50% of the participants are eliminated on the first round of competition. For a professional tennis player this simply means packing their bags and moving on to the next tournament. However if such tournament were only held 1 a year, it may well be difficult to retain players beyond the top half a dozen or so who will win the prize money.

For sports organisations to retain participation then, they need to be able to offer more competitions and preferably have them graded to allow more people the opportunity to win something. As such a small percentage of people ‘win’ in sport, winning alone cannot be the primary motivation for participation.

To answer the questions posed, consideration has been given to the definition of a sports organisation and the nature of a sports organisation as discussed at Attachment 1.

In order to get people to participate in sporting activity on an ongoing basis, it needs to be available on an ongoing basis.

In Malaysia, which operates under a Federal/State sports structure not unlike that of Australia, teams may play at club level in district competition and either competes as a club at a State Championship or as part of District Team. The problem of breaking up a club however to take out the best players to form a district team is that you immediately break the social structure of the team and interfere with one of the main driving forces for participation in sport. i.e. ‘playing with your mates’. To compensate for this, some volleyball associations in different parts of the world also organise State and National Club Championships with some continental bodies, like Asia also offering Regional Club Championships and tournaments so that people who do like to play together can stay together and compete at the highest level possible depending on whether they win or not.

The alternative is to have a District Championship to select a team to play in the State Championships from which a squad is picked to compete in the National Championships. This might result in stronger teams however as previously mentioned it can cause a rupture in the social structure of the sport and result in people dropping out as their mates move on.

The next challenge is to cater for the ones who go no further.

Graded competition that allows people to find success at their particular level is the most common way to tackle this. Alternatively a season of competition that is available on an ongoing basis. While the ‘winners’ go on to the next level of events, the ‘losers’ need to find alternate competitions that give them another opportunity to compete and therefore an incentive to keep training and playing the sport.

This raises another problem though. If sport is organised that lock people into a competition and a team for too long a period, their busy lives may make it too hard for them to commit and hence they are likely to drop out of the sport. To cater for these people, there appears to be a rise in the number of casual leagues that allow people to turn up and join any team without having to commit for a whole season.

Who is Responsible?

The ‘owner’ of Volleyball in Malaysia is the Malaysian Volleyball Federation.

In theory, any volleyball activity that takes place within the national boundaries of Malaysia should be sanctioned or licensed by the National Body. In the ideal world then, any volleyball activity that is held in Malaysia should have a clear link to the NSA. Many confuse this however and suggest that the NSA should be the one to organise the events. However it might be better to look at it another way.

The following Table lists for Asia, the level of activity and the expected organising body. Note however that effectively this means that all Volleyball happens either directly or under license of the FIVB.

Level of Activity (Who is Responsible?)

International  (International Federations IF)

World Championships

World Grand Prix

World Club Championships

World Qualifying Event

Regional (Continental or Regional Associations)

Regional Championships

Regional Club Championships

Regional Multisport Games

National  (National sport Associations NSA)

National Championships

National Club Championships

National Leagues or Grand Prix.

National Schools Championships.

State (State of District Associations)

State Championships

State Club Championships

State Schools Championships


Club/School Competitions

Community                                       Informal Activities/Recreation

At any point in the continuum illustrated above, commercial or government driven organisations can freely operate. Ideally they would do so in collaboration with the NSA as the agent for the International Governing Body for the sport concerned.

So the simple answer to the questions posed are that Clubs and States should organise competitions for adults and for juniors as they see fit. However if possible they should be assisting schools to conduct their activities as well and encourage them to be members of the SSA or NSA as appropriate.

Apart from help to form a smooth pathway for young athletes out of schools into other avenues of activity it also encourage people to stay together. One of the problems facing many sports organisations, particularly competitive ones is that they place barriers to new members due to their parochial or ‘tribal’ nature. So in addition to their being competitive reasons for people being excluded for playing sport there are also strong social and socio economic reasons as well and many sports organisations fail to recognize these factors and turn away many more potential participants than they can retain. This does not even factor in the obvious elements of access to facilities and equipment as well as people with appropriate skills and so on.

To overcome all of these elements, it is suggested that competition in some form or another for any particular sport must be available on an ongoing basis and at a level required to cater for the people who aspire to play the sport.

To solve the problems observed and that have been observed world wide, it is necessary to look at the role of the NSA as a licensing agent as well as an event organizer. Within each of the levels there then needs to be more competitions organised to cater for the participants who are eliminated from a current competition or who do not make the natural progression from one level to the next.

Furthermore their needs to be a natural progression from one type of competition to another, i.e. from community to club/school, school to club, District to State and so on. The opportunity to progress is the essence of sport and this needs to continue, rather than be substituted by short cuts to the top such as what might be seen in talent scouting and identification programs that provides opportunities for young athletes based on perceived ability or future potential. The challenge is to ensure the other opportunities follow on a frequent and regular basis and that the barriers to participation are recognised and dealt with on an ongoing basis.

The NSA needs to be central to this process and should be the primary facilitating agent in any country to ensure the sport is connected properly from the casual community base to the structured elite level and that this occurs as seamlessly as possible.

Finally then to answer the questions posed by Dato Sieh Kok Chi.

1.   Why is the state association organising competition for the schools and not the state schools sports councils?

In my view it is ideal if the SSA and the State School Association either amalgamate or collaborate to help reduce the barriers of transferring from school to club or mainstream sport. In my experience, having to leave your school and find a club program that will accept you, unless you come with a good reputation is both intimidating and difficult. Most people opt to stop here. Furthermore, many people do become busy with life and prefer not to commit to the discipline of regular training and competition. This is particularly true of people who have no real ambition for a sport or who are not overly talented. Clubs/States need to be able to conduct casual or ‘pick-up’ activities to cater for these people and use these programs to attract people into more formal or structured leagues as they gain confidence or skills.

At the very least they remain an important source of income for the Club. Also by working together with schools, a ‘win-win’ situation can be created as the school and club/association work together to create opportunities for the people they are associated with. The schools may provide facilities and people, while the latter provide the competition and training equipment and expertise. The most successful club programs that I have worked in were either school or University based that worked in harmony with a club or State Association.

2.   Why doesn’t the State Volleyball Association organise adult championship or leagues?

They certainly should be doing this and on an ongoing basis, all year round with combinations of casual leagues, formal leagues, tournaments and special or even novelty events that draw on community support and family involvement.

The challenge for all competitive sport organisations is to become more welcoming and make the effort to cater for everyone, particularly the majority (the ones who lose). A further challenge is to be able to access facilities frequently enough and at a level of affordability to make this all possible.

2.    How do we go about retaining people in sport after they leave school?

If the above 2 questions are dealt with and all stakeholders work together in support of each other’s activities, this becomes a far more likely outcome.

It is also important however to allow people to find their ‘comfort zone’ and cater for it while at the same time ensure that there is a fair and seamless pathway from one level of competitiveness to the next. In-built into this is the need to ensure that they can be challenged to move on if they wish to.

Sport organisations need to at some point realise that they are a provider of a service and need to establish a reward and incentive system that encourages people to stay in the sport and remain with the organisation. This is a fundamental principle of business but one, which is often forgotten by sport administrators.

It has to be about more than just the sport. Camaraderie, success, opportunity to progress, opportunity to improve or try again, social contact, developing skills, providing a sense of belonging are just some of the many factors that need to be considered in making a competitive sport club viable and able to retain members.

It is not always about reward either. Many young successful athletes quit sport because they have been a state or national rep when they were 14 and no longer feel that there is anything else to strive for? So it should never be assumed that success alone would keep people in sport.


At the end of the day if people find a sport they enjoy, a group of people that they enjoy and opportunity to pursue their interest with as few barriers as possible, it is likely that they will continue to be involved. Competitive sport by its very nature discourages participation and encourages exclusivity. As sports administrators, our job is to manage that process and ensure that other avenues open up for those who reach the dead ends.

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