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.
Why do people play sports? To win, to move their bodies, or simply to have fun? Many adults partake in organised sport for the physical benefits, or with a competitive goal. But, for children, their main motivation for playing sport is simple: to participate and have fun.
Evidence has also demonstrated that adult behaviours affect kids’ enjoyment of organised sport – with a focus on winning and competition appearing to serve the needs of adults more than the needs of children.
We need to remember that children play sports, first and foremost, to have fun, be with their friends, make new friends, develop, and learn new skills. They participate in sporting activities because they enjoy playing sports.
Although New Zealanders as a whole have many reasons for playing sports and engaging in physical activity, for children – as Sport NZ’s Active NZ survey tells us – the lead motivation is fun (76 percent), while, for adults, it is physical well-being (72 percent).
When participating in sports, a focus on winning and competition outcomes often comes at the expense of children’s enjoyment and continued participation. According to Sport NZ’s Voice of Participant research, participant dissatisfaction increases with a higher focus on winning and competitiveness. And once children stop enjoying a sport, they often drop out, to the detriment of their physical, mental, and social well-being.
When delivering youth sports programmes, our primary aim should always be to engage young people, give them enjoyable experiences, and keep them playing sports for as long as possible. Therefore it’s vital that we understand why they play sports, and endeavour to create environments that meet their wants and needs. When we succeed, we can help them to enjoy an array of physical, social, health, and psychological benefits across a lifetime of sporting activity.
Understanding the benefits of playing sports
Andy Boyens, former All White, professional footballer, and current NZ Football Technical Director, understands the importance of fun for young people in sport.
“Sometimes we can miss the purpose of them playing in the first place, which is to enjoy themselves, to have fun, to do something they love.”
Enjoyment doesn’t come at the expense of competitiveness and development,” he reminds us. “The focus should always be on enjoyment. Of course, kids want to get better. But, ultimately, it’s about creating an environment that they can get better in.
“A lot of the time that’s not focusing on the pressures of professional sport or winning every single game. It’s actually focusing on developing and getting better step-by-step over a longer-term process.”
Playing sports carries many benefits; it’s an invaluable form of physical activity, and a tool for staying healthy and maintaining an active lifestyle; it can help kids to learn important skills, such as teamwork, leadership, and decision-making; and it can teach children valuable life lessons, while offering them a platform to make new friends and improve their communication skills. None of these positive outcomes are tied to competition, but are simply the products of participating in supportive, well-run sporting environments. For young people, the benefits of playing sport extend far beyond results on gameday.
Silver Ferns legend Temepara Bailey supports this too, and points out that success and winning can mean different things to different young people.
“One of the myths out there is winning is the be-all and end-all. I disagree. I think there’s part, especially in the higher teams, where winning is in the back of your mind and it’s part of the process. But at a younger age, winning can come in all different forms. I think we see winning as you win or lose a game. Winning for a child can be ‘oh, I caught the ball’ or ‘I managed to pass to someone’ or ‘I ran off really quickly’.
She reminds us that “Winning comes in different forms. As New Zealanders, and passionate coaches and parents, we want everything for our kids. But we get that definition of winning wrong sometimes.”
Boyens is a coach and a parent, and sees his role as creating an environment where children can develop not only physically, but also as people, while playing sports. Success, he says, isn’t about the number of games you win.
“When you’re trying to measure success in young people, winning is quite an easy measurement to use. But the reality is, I can’t remember what I won when I was 12, 13, 14, or even older, but I remember the great coaches I had. I remember the people that I hung out with and I remember enjoying the journey. That is the stuff that helps create an ability to win in the future. If you put too much focus on winning, you can sometimes lose sight of the journey.
“Sport is such a great mechanism for young people to grow and develop, and I don’t mean grow and develop just in sport but in life,” he says.
“The more young people we have playing sport and bringing through to senior sport, it is going to actually have a massive effect on society. These young people will be happier, healthier, more mentally refreshed to be able to go on and be successful in life.”
Image Credits: Sport NZ