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Personal best: Organised youth sport - then and now

Too much parental pressure can take all the fun out of children's team sports

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 10:37am

As I watched a 10-year-old boy come off the rugby field in tears, I couldn't help reflect how children's sport had changed since I was a child. The entire pitch was lined with parents, some clapping and cheering, and others pacing up and down screaming until red in the face. Perhaps it's middle-aged parents living out their sporting dreams. Perhaps it's fear and understanding of just how competitive the world is.

Or perhaps it's the need to control every aspect of their child's lives. Team sports are fun, develop physical fitness and teach some important life lessons. Children's team sports haven't changed, but the way they're organised has - and perhaps not for the better.

Parents, 35 or older, may remember when sport was neighbourhood children getting on with some sort of physical game. There were no uniforms, schedules, regular teams, time limits, officials, adult spectators, video recorders, individual performance stats, win-loss records, or trophies.

Parents rarely voiced an opinion as long as kids didn't get into trouble, were within two blocks of home, and made it back for dinner on time.

This style of play reflected child values. With only peer pressure to perform, each game was a unique experience, disappearing as soon as the children did. While fun was at the heart of this, children also managed to learn interaction with peers, decision-making, and conflict resolution.

The past 30 years have seen children's team sports involving adults as the norm. Parents stepped in to fill a vacuum left by teachers in the 1980s. Then, in the '90s, research started relating organised youth sport to increases in skill development, goal setting, self-discipline, self-control, and general psychological well-being. So the path was set. This is generally all good, but there are downsides to parental expectations.

Parents choose the sport, pay the fees, and purchase the equipment. These sports become a reflection of adult values, including the focus on results. Children whose performances contribute to winning can be more valued than those who fail to produce the goods.

These mixed signals confuse children. Desperately wanting to please the adults in their lives (parents and coaches), they can feel anxious before games and become upset to the point of tears if they didn't perform as expected, or made mistakes. They may have "fun", but only if they win or feel they did well.

Yet for children, who don't truly understand the concept of winning and are still learning new skills, being part of a group, laughing with friends, and running around, tends to count for more than winning.

Dr Andy Pitchford from the University of Gloucester says parents naturally treat kids' games like adult games, with victory being everything. He believes children's coaches need to teach basic skills and allow the competitive element to come out naturally. Too much pressure, and children can't test things out or develop the freewheeling skills they need in an adult professional game.

The Hong Kong Rugby Union has recognised this, according to Steve Jones, senior coach and development co-ordinator, by creating a learning focus based around age-appropriate physical and mental abilities.

Jim White, a British broadcaster, says parents' passion and eagerness are wonderful, but most aren't experienced or qualified to coach. An example: parents shouting from the sideline during matches, believing they are "coaching".

For the children, who are especially attuned to these voices, it makes concentration on anything else impossible.

One park district in the US has installed a sign at the entrance of the hockey rink, listing the following rules: these are kids; this is a game; parents should cheer for everyone; referees are human; and you and your child do not play for the Chicago Blackhawks (a professional ice hockey team).

These new ideas on how to coach children question our sporting values. Is it about kids enjoying themselves and having sport in their future, or is it about winning at all costs? If we can get it right, we can open up a love of sport in children that takes them well into their adult years.

For the majority of kids, to enjoy a run around with friends is going to be the best thing to come out of playing in youth sports. Parents need to remind themselves of this.

Laura Walsh has a master's in sports science, psychology and counselling

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