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Tuesday, 4 November 2014


There is little doubt that the culture of sports coaching has changed over recent years.  Stakeholders at all levels - parents, teachers, coaches, administrators - are recognising the vital importance of positive early experiences as a foundation for lifelong participation in physical activities, and also just because children’s sports should be fun!  And while it would be naive to assume that such changes have reached all coaches (they certainly have not), more and more organisations are calling for new ways to present sports, especially to young people.

The increasing call for positive approaches to youth sports have been inspired by an acknowledgement that too many young people become turned off sports by the behavior and demands of adults who should know better.  Parents screaming from the sidelines; coaches rubbishing children’s efforts; peewee competitions treated like professional athletics

The absurdity of this situation is vividly highlighted by a series of short films from Hockey Canada, in which children are seen talking to their parents the way that some parents talk during sports.

One of the more interesting, and concerning, consequences of writing my Smart Moves column for Psychology Today magazine column has been the messages I have received from people around the world whose experiences of sports and other physical activities were far from positive:

“I hated PE.  Really hated it!”

“My first coach was a bully.  It was all about control.  Power and control.  And we were little kids!”

“Why would anyone want to play a game where adults are screaming at you, or calling you names?  Sports are supposed to be fun.  My first sports experiences were not much fun!"

At a time when rates of childhood inactivity are rising to the extent that they are causing wide-scale alarm for the harm to health, both now and later in life, the urgency of rethinking youth sport could hardly be greater.  Early experiences are important as they set the tone for everything that follows.  Positive early experiences encourage further participation; negative experiences turn off kids.

The ways in which physical activity is presented are significant with all populations, but there are particularly compelling reasons to focus on first experiences as they start a pattern for all that follows. If the earliest experiences of activity are uninspiring, boys and girls will not want to continue, and evidence suggests that inactive children are likely to become inactive adolescents, and inactive adults.

Research from the US suggests that sports participation drops by 30 percent for each year of age, after ten years of age.  According to a report from the National Alliance for Youth Sports, over 70% of children drop out of organized sports by age 13.

Numerous studies report that many children are put off participating in sports by an over-emphasis on winning, and this effect is especially strong with girls. Children are too-often presented with a narrow and uninspiring range of opportunities, and while many children love team games and athletic events, others find these traditional forms of activity physical activity either irrelevant or boring.

Probably the most important of all factors is fun. There is no doubt that the main reason children play and carry on playing sports and games is that they are enjoyable. Yet well-meaning parents, teachers and coaches spoil sports by making them too serious too soon. As we have seen, sometimes inappropriate forms of competition are the problem. Other times, it seems, children are unable to play the games they would choose.

Research suggests that children under seven or eight years of age are primarily motivated by pleasure, play and the sheer joy of movement. They do not want to serious games. Instead, they want to run and jump and chase and hide because they feel good. By coincidence, these sorts of actions are good for the developing bodies and minds, but that is not why children do them. For young children, play is enough. As they get older, children enter their ‘skill hungry years’. This is the time when they have a drive to learn new skills. They continue to seek out the pleasure of movement, but they also need to have a greater sense of mastery.

Other factors have been found to be important, too. Variety is the spice of life. This is true for physical activities, too. Some suggest early specialization in a sport is necessary for later success, but evidence shows that children who experience a range of activities are more likely to carry on playing, and they are also more likely to find the activity that becomes a lifelong passion. Even people who grow up to become champions tend to have sampled a range of activities as children, and only focused on one much later in life. So positive early experiences are as necessary for future sporting stars as the rest of us!

Problems arise when we forget the three fundamental rules of child development:

·      Children not are mini-adults;

·      Children are not mini-adults;

·      Children are not mini-adults.

Positive early experiences lay a foundation for a lifetime. It is easy to put children off physical activities; it is much more difficult to turn adults on to them. If we wish to make physical activities normal features of childhood, we need to ensure that the foundations are strong.

For more on this topic, see: