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Are we pushing young people to live up to our expectations, instead of their own?

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.

When we push our young people too hard, too often, the risks are high. Without appropriate management, over training and over playing can lead to injury and burn out in young people.

There is an increasing prevalence of overuse injuries in teenagers more commonly seen in older athletes, including ACL reconstructions, patellar tendonitis, shin splints and tennis elbow. These injuries have long term effects on our young people and can end their sporting aspirations and ability to lead active lives as adults. 

Maia Lewis, former White Fern captain and coach of the New Zealand Māori Secondary School cricket team, understands the impact that over training and pressure can have on a young person. 

Maia started playing sport in her youth and quickly rose to become a White Fern.

“I was probably stretched to do a bit too much. I ended up with having a knee reconstruction (ACL reconstruction) when I was 27, at the peak of my White Ferns career. That was a big, big blow for me but also a big reality check.”

Whilst Maia was a driven and motivated young sportsperson, her work with young athletes now has also been a reminder of the realities and issues that young people face today, much earlier than they should, with the ever increasing lure of professionalism. 

As she sees it, young people are being expected to perform consistently in training and commit to an exercise volume similar to that of a fully grown adult whilst still needing to perform at school and have down time with friends.  

“I see the pressures that go on youth these days. We need to step back and help positively, not live through them and what we wanted to achieve,” she says.

“Especially for young woman. While coaching them, for me it’s around making sure there’s a purpose when training. A purpose around what they’re trying to achieve and then making sure that it’s just quality over quantity.”

She sees her role as a coach and a parent not only to teach the technical skills required but also ensure she supports them with everything going on in their lives and that as young people more generally, they have a positive experience. 

“I always go back to asking the participants, the players – what do you want? What does it look like? Because sometimes what they want, what we perceive and what it looks like isn’t necessarily the same.”

“Whether you’re a coach, parent, sports administrator or manager, anyone that’s supports young people in sport, you must put the participant first and foremost in their mind. It’s about making sure that we step back and let them do what they want to do at the level they want to do it at.”

Image Credits: Sport NZ