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Making Sense of Youth Sports: What sport is all about can be very different for each of us and our children

Mike Staples, Director of Activities and Sport, Dover Campus

With over 4,000 students taking part in some kind of sporting activity at UWCSEA each week, we can be reasonably confident that the majority of the UWCSEA community believe in the positive role that youth sports can play in education. Fair play, teamwork, humility in success and grace in defeat are all important aspects of such an education but outside of College, where sport is big business entertainment, a ‘win at all costs’ culture can sometimes give our children a conflicting set of values as well as make it hard for us as parents to make sense of what, in essence, youth sport is all about.

Of course, ‘what sport is all about’ can be very different for each of us and our children.

This was brought home to me at a parents’ sports forum some years ago, at which we were focusing on what direction one of our sports programmes could take in the future. At one end of the debate, training ten times a week to achieve the highest levels of performance was an expressed aim; while at the other, taking part for fun, health and fitness was the most desired outcome. Parents were surprised at the considerable distance between their points of view (as were we initially), but the discussion was positive and highlighted what we all should have realised. This and similar conversations like it were the catalyst for broadening the range of opportunities and differing pathways UWCSEA offers in recreational and competitive sports, the result of which has been a doubling of student participation in our programmes in the last four years.

Whilst lifelong fitness, personal achievement, perhaps an NCAA scholarship or, purely fun and enjoyment are all reasons to take part in sport, at UWCSEA we hope for something less tangible; essentially through the powerful medium of sport we strive to help young people develop their values, learn how to make better moral judgements, distinguish right from wrong, and acquire a disposition to do some good in this world.

Keeping these lofty goals in mind when our children don’t perhaps make the progress we hoped for, a referee makes a ‘bad’ call, the coach makes a ‘questionable’ decision, or our child’s team lose a championship game is sometimes easier said than done. Personally I thought I would always see this broader picture and I would never show ‘Soccer Dad’ tendencies. To my dismay during and after my daughter’s first representative game I found myself giving her advice, dissecting her game and even chatting over team tactics with the coach! Was I, the Head of Sports at UWCSEA, becoming my daughter’s worst sporting nightmare? It hit home, as a parent of kids playing sport, how easy it is to get too emotionally involved in ‘their game,’ despite the best of intentions.

My experience and those of sports ‘mums and dads’ are increasingly examined by sports governing bodies, sports coach associations and teachers. There is a line of thought in some that suggests, as parents, we should be allowing our children much greater ownership of their own sporting experience than we currently do. In his TEDxBend talk ‘Changing the Game in Youth Sports,’ NCAA Soccer Coach, John O’Sullivan talks about the reasons for a 70% dropout rate by US kids from youth sports by the age of 13. The key reason being that the adult emphasis on performance and results has led to adults over-criticising children. Children in turn are afraid of making mistakes, are subject to ‘cuts’ and selections, do not receive equal play time and are finding that all the fun has been taken out of what should have been an enjoyable learning experience. In short, the adults sometimes need to just let the kids play.

‘Parent training school’ also didn’t prepare us to know precisely what level of physical development our children should attain at different times in their lives. Knowing when our babies would start to eat, sleep or walk, let alone how fast our children should run the 100 metres, when they should be able to catch a ball or score a goal can be (and likely should remain) a mystery. Sometimes this ‘not knowing,’ in sporting terms, can cause what John O’Sullivan calls ‘a race to nowhere.’ The ‘race’ being the desire by us as parents for our children to do more and more at a younger age to reach their potential. Longer and longer training hours, early specialisation in one sport, excessive rewards for winning and inappropriate types of competition. Built on research into children’s physical maturation the Canadian 'Sport For Life’ movement provides us with a useful and wide ranging insight into what is sensible at all ages whether you are aiming for an Olympic gold or a healthy, active lifestyle. Their long term athlete development (LTAD) stages, based on physical and cognitive maturation advocates: early years fun, a broad physical literacy, late specialisation and intrinsic goal setting. Their ‘end game’ being peak performance in an athlete’s 20s and continued lifelong physical activity into ripe old age.

Of course while there are these pointers helping us to make sense of youth sports, there is no perfect plan. As such it is fine and important that each of us personalise our own sporting involvement. The likelihood is that physical activity will contribute to our children having longer, healthier lives and we as parents should try to give them as broad a range of physical opportunities as is possible while they are young. Additionally, as the adults our children emulate the most, we should probably try to model healthy practice and positive values ourselves. Inevitably there will come a time when our kids will make their own choices. It is up to us to decide when we let go completely—but let go we should. In the meantime simply making sure that our children know that we love watching them play sport, might perhaps be the most effective thing we can do.

Further reading

Changing the Game project

The Second Goal Parent

My Magic Sports Kit

Ray Calls for Respect