In this series of Balance is Better articles, Sport NZ explores the myths surrounding youth sport and the shift in thinking needed to halt declining participation levels in kiwi teens.
How many of the children and youth selected for representative teams at a young age go on to become professional sportspeople or excel in their chosen sport? As it turns out, not many.
Early selection and specialisation in one sport can cause a very high turnover from youth level to senior level.
Identifying young athletes early in the selection process also sends a powerful message to those not selected – the ones who were de-selected. They wanted to play too, but the notion that they can’t succeed unless they’re in the top few, along with the limited opportunities this means for their social or development focussed path, means that they often fall through the cracks.
Selection processes are often counterproductive to participation and development. Young people not identified as top performers can often simply disengage and drop-out or can’t participate because there is no team for them to participate in.
Maturity bias is also a strong factor in selection. With selection at youth level – it is often the early developer (taller, bigger, stronger) who is selected over the late developer. However, it is often thelate developers who are the ones who can become the elite performers.
Dane Lett, Black Sticks hockey player and Head of Hockey at Wellington Hockey, believes we are doing our youth and our future sporting potential a disservice by focusing on selection at an early age.
“It’s like a lottery to start picking who’s going to be the next big thing at age 10, 12, 15,” he says.
“You just never know when a young person is going to shine.”
Lett didn’t start playing hockey until the age of 12 and was more interested in playing rugby throughout most of his high school years.
“I didn’t debut for the Black Sticks until 24. Then I didn’t actually become a full-timer until I was around 27.”
“I was probably a late developer, as people call it. There’s physical development, but also for me it was probably just maturity and mental development.”
“There’s so much that goes into being a professional hockey player. In my experience, there were a lot of what people would call exceptionally gifted hockey players that I played with (who were younger) and I’m afraid most of them don’t even play hockey anymore.”
The pressure and physical risks associated with pushing too hard too early along with a ‘win at all costs mentality’ can have a huge impact on young people’s experience and enjoyment of sport.
“I think success is different for everyone, and I think we’ve all got a role to play in defining what that looks like for a young person. Enjoyment is the biggest key. Even at my level. I think a lot of people drop out because they fall out of love with the sport, usually because of pressure or intensity.”
We now have the evidence and know that the Tiger Wood such stories that the media love, is a sporting pathway that very few athletes follow. And as with Tiger, it comes with a significant cost to your wellbeing. Dane is working at both a regional and national level to ensure all young people can have a great experience playing hockey.
“Hockey NZ have gone through a big structural review of how we deliver hockey in New Zealand. One of the most important things I think, is for a while we’ve had a philosophical view of how sport should be delivered and have since realised that some of our tournaments and competitions don’t really align with that. So, it’s really refreshing that we’re actually getting to a stage where we’re making real change.”
Hockey NZ have made a lot of big changes to the way tournaments are run across the country. Moving away from a national model to a more regional model, with more kids getting the opportunity to play. There is also more of a focus on development over outcomes.
“We’re also looking at changing competition structures and doing a lot more small-sided competitions rather than 11-a-side to get more people out playing the game. Within representative spaces too, we’re trying to give more kids opportunities and focus a lot less on selection in lower age groups.
“I often get people saying, “Well, sport needs to be competitive.” Adults often don’t understand the difference between competition and then competitiveness. I think competitiveness is great, we want people to always be trying to get better at what they’re doing. It’s doing that in the right environment, so it’s not always about the outcome – winning or losing or how many goals you scored.”
“It’s incredibly important to keep young people in sport. I think sports can be a fantastic vehicle for character development, for health and wellbeing.”
Image Credits: Sport NZ