by Luke Goldston
Sport is good for kids. Children who are involved in sport generally have lower rates of depression, get better school results, become more employable, have higher self esteem and a more positive body image. In addition they have all the health benefits that higher activity levels provide, particularly if they can continue into adulthood. For younger kids it’s an essential part of learning motor skills and social and emotional development.
But it’s not as simple as just buying a pair of boots and driving them down to the nearest sports club. Although sport does have a lot of benefit, it has far more benefit when it’s put into the context of a broad and fulfilling life. Kids who are also in a happy home, are encouraged academically and get involved in the wider community in various ways such as clubs and charity work tend to get much more out of sport than those who focus more narrowly.
It seems a given in modern culture that sports stars are role models for children. While it’s true that sport can provide role models, the more likely and useful source of inspiration is not the millionaire megastar who is as real to a child as a comic book superhero, but the humble junior coach and their fellow athletes.
Renowned parenting writer Steve Biddulph notes that from the ages of about 7 to 14, boys in particular look to their fathers to learn how to be men. As they progress through their teens they start to look for role models from outside the family. This is where a consistent commitment to a sporting team can provide kids with a template for how to deal with success and failure, the importance of effort and teamwork and the rewards for determination.
However, not all role models are positive ones. For instance, research has shown higher levels of violence, drink driving and antisocial attitudes amongst some male high school athletes which carries over into adulthood; and that’s why it’s important to choose a sport as much for the individuals that are involved with it as for the sport itself.
No girls allowed
ABS data show that girls trail boys in sporting participation, even when female dominated activities like organised dancing are taken into consideration. In fact, it is not until middle age that this trend starts to reverse and women begin to take part in sport and exercise as much as men.
Yet the benefits for girls from sports participation are, if anything, even more pronounced than those for boys. Girls who participate in sports have, on average, a more positive body image, suffer less from depression, have higher self esteem and are less likely to have unintended pregnancies. In fact even in sports like diving and gymnastics where teenage competitors have their bodies on display in revealing attire, a situation which might be thought to promote anxieties, research showed a positive effect on physical self image.
So the question remains: why don’t girls play sport as much as boys? There is no clear answer but it is certainly true that parents, peers, the media and society in general seem to take a different view of girls’ sport to boys.
Many of the characteristics that we tend to applaud in athletes are often seen as inherently ‘male’ traits such as mental and physical toughness, determination and courage. ‘Boys will be boys’ is the attitude we take to the prospect of our sons hurting themselves, yet we often treat girls as a somehow more vulnerable species and even more fragile the older they get.
For girls, particularly those in and approaching those difficult teenage years where sexuality and gender identity become such a factor, sport may be seen as unfeminine and therefore unappealing.
There also seems to be a lack of role models for young women in sport. Some of this may be due to the fact that there is only a tenth as much women’s sport coverage in the media as men’s. When women athletes are given airtime, it often seems to be more for their beauty than their ability.
Once again though, the solution may lie closer to home. Studies have shown that a mother’s participation in sports, while it has little influence on their sons, has quite a significant effect on whether their daughters play. Perhaps we need to rethink the meaning we attach to the phrase ‘soccer mum’ to include a mum who inspires their daughter to play rather than just drive them to the games.
The Down Side
As any parent will tell you, kids have a certain genius for hurting themselves. They have an undeveloped awareness of the boundaries of the physical world and the limits of their bodies, and remarkable resilience and recuperative powers that make the consequences seem not as great.
Although it may sometimes fill us with worry, in general this is a good thing; without this adventurous, creative urge they wouldn’t develop at all. However it does mean they are prone to sporting injuries. For the most part these injuries aren’t serious. Immature bodies are usually flexible enough to cope with the kinds of impacts and strains that they are put through and the greatest risks to health, like rugby scrums, have been made significantly safer with rule changes over the years.
However, with the increasing professionalisation of most sports, more intensive training practices have filtered down to junior levels making younger and younger bodies vulnerable to overuse injuries. More gifted athletes who get involved in elite programs are often subjected to a ‘survival of the fittest’ process where those who can hack the pace are rewarded with a shot at adult professional glory and the 95% who can’t are discarded with only scars to show for it.
If a parent has concerns about the training load of a young athlete the most important questions to ask are:
• Who is driving this? Is it the athlete themselves or is this coming from an overly zealous coach, or even from yourself as a parent.
• Do you trust the coaches, trainers and health care professionals involved? Do they have the appropriate experience and qualifications to help you make decisions?
“No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training...what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.
Socrates (469-399 BC)”
Sport has been used by civilizations to train future soldiers and empire builders, by governments to boost national pride and by corporations for marketing and branding. Youth sports is now a focus of government policy and a key initiative in the ‘war’ against obesity. However, while we can cite the benefits to our children in boosting self-esteem, teamwork and psychological health it’s easy to get so caught up in the push to get something out of sport that we forget the chief goal of most kids playing sport – to have fun.
Unfortunately, many coaches and parents have methods and attitudes towards training and playing that end up being nothing more than elaborate ways of sucking the fun out of sport. It’s worth remembering that while we may see the benefits that will last them a lifetime, for many kids the only factor that will actually keep them in the game is whether they’re enjoying themselves.
It’s worth restating that the simplest and most effective way to motivate a child to participate in sport and exercise is for the parent to participate themselves.
Losing and other catastrophes
Kids are natural competitors. They want to get out there and run faster and throw further. They want to be the best dancer, the best singer, the best footie player. In short, they love to win. Some have a naturally better handle on winning and losing than others. For those kids, losing is bad because it’s less fun than winning and it goes no further than that.
For others, unfortunately, the experience of losing a game seems to cause an emotional and spiritual breakdown of Chernobyl proportions. Those same kids are often even worse winners, teasing and taunting their opponents to rub their noses in it.
The solution isn’t to insulate them from losing and competing. Sport can be an emotional experience. Winning, losing, getting hurt, being exhausted, all of these can trigger strong responses in us. Controlling the wild excesses of childhood emotion doesn’t come naturally but sport can be a valuable teacher in this regard, especially when good mentors are around to show kids how they should behave.
You should, therefore, focus on praising them for effort and behaviour rather than results, show an interest in and talk to them about the specifics of a game or event rather than just asking them ‘did you win?’ and most importantly, model appropriate behaviour yourself and ensure they are around others who do the same. One of the most difficult but important tricks that sport can teach is how to compete to the utmost of your ability but not go to pieces when that doesn’t bring success.
Finally, give your kids some perspective. As stated earlier, sport has been shown to be a more valuable learning experience when it’s tempered with some real life experience of the wider world; because at the end of the day, it is only a game.
Every sport has some benefit; it’s hard to argue that one is better than others, still harder to argue that there is a best sport for kids to participate in. What is important though is to find a sport that is a best fit for the child, physically and psychologically.
For instance, endurance sports are often linked to personalities that excel at persistence and dedication. But to push a child into long distance running in the hope that they’ll develop these characteristics may be misguided. It’s more likely that certain personality types are more attracted to certain sports.
Some kids might be turned off by traditional team sports to the extent that they are labelled un-athletic, yet turn out to be a champion at fencing or badminton. Some may value being in nature far more than competing with their peers and love nothing more than bushwalking. The trick is not to make the process of finding the right sports excessively time and money consuming, and to remember that at some point they need to learn to commit to something.
Many sports that are learnt young can be enjoyed until well into the senior years; swimming, cycling, martial arts and sailing for example. Others have a relatively short lifespan, with participation in popular sports such as the rugby codes and AFL dropping off sharply after the 20s.
This is not a reason to ignore those kinds of sports but a child who commits all their energy to a game that they’ll give up when they’re 21 is in danger of spending the rest of their life inactive. It’s also been shown that kids who play multiple sports are more likely to continue playing into adulthood than single sports athletes. A more balanced approach is to make sure every child participates in at least one sport or activity that they can continue to do long after their indestructible youth is gone.