9 Jan 2020

Are we driving kids too hard too early in sporting codes?

From Summer Times, 9:29 am on 9 January 2020

Sport NZ is looking to combat the professionalisation of youth sports, which it says is contributing to kids dropping out of sport early. 

The "elitising" of sport at a young age was the subject of a two part investigation by Stuff correspondent Dana Johannsen over the weekend. In the report, Sport NZ talent development manager Alex Chiet outlined the government's agency to shift the attitudes of youth sport. He joined Emile Donovan to discuss what he sees as a concerning threat to kids' wellbeing.

 mixed kid teams rugby

Photo: 123RF

Chiet says he’s excited about the new trends he’s seeing and Dana Johannsen’s reporting has highlighted shifting attitudes, particularly in how parents are responding to it. 

“Parents are starting to understand that what’s been occurring isn’t right and it’s almost given them a platform and an opportunity to speak that they haven’t had for many years. I don’t think they’ve had that platform because their behaviours have been driven by the sport system around them.

“Kids have been dropping out of sport, kids haven’t been getting a good quality experience, kids have been getting broken down and getting injured, where actually what’s most important for young people today is to have a positive experience with their mates and enjoy themselves and have the appropriate development at the right stage.”

He says that in the past 30 years, research has been clear that high performance behaviour isn't in the best interest of young people and can have unintended consequences.

“If people want to be their best as a senior athlete, research suggests growing up sampling other sports, having fun doing different things with your mates, and not getting serious too quick is actually the better approach to take.”

Chiet says there have been worrying trends the past few years of children dropping out of sports at a higher rate than before because they feel there’s no place for them. 

“There’s a perception out there that parents think if kids aren’t in these stream or rep teams or academies from early on then their kids aren’t going to have the best chance to reach success later on. The evidence is really clear, that’s not the case.

“Kids want to have fun and be with their mates, and when these stream teams and rep teams kick in, it gives some kids an opportunity to do a lot more and gives most kids the opportunity to do nothing.”

He says that engagement in a variety of different sports tends to result in much better outcomes for kids than those that end up specialising in one sport from the age of eight end up hating it by the time they’re teenagers. 

“The research is very clear and it’s been there for many years. The challenging is influencing change.”

Chiet says the repercussions for kids taking on high performance and competitive sport at a young age are significant. 

“These kids are going through adolescence, the load that some of them are doing are more than semi-professional athletes. There are some really concerning signs out there.” 

He suggests that children play a variety of sports they like until their mid-teens and then make decisions about their future. 

“We’re working really hard to shift how we work with sport to provide the best possible experience to keep kids active for life… at the moment that’s at risk with some of these behaviours”