When it comes to community sport, 2020 has certainly had its ups and downs, from a complete halt to scaling alert levels.
Adversity though has taught us, if nothing else, that wellbeing is at the heart of sport.
And that aligns with the Balance is Better principles, which include giving young people a quality sport experience regardless of level, opportunities underpinned by quality leadership, skill development opportunities for all youth, encouraging youth to participate in a range of activities, reducing the risks of overloading and overtraining, ensuring coaches and volunteers encourage participation for wellbeing, and participating in a safe and fun environment.
It’s not hard to see then, why it’s so important to implement these principles in such challenging times.
Taking a break for your wellbeing, doing something different between seasons or even changing codes is a good idea.
Dom Vettise, a clinical psychologist who works with athletes and sports teams, says youth and even their coaches/managers/administrators need ways to recharge their batteries both mentally and physically.
“A change in sport is as good as a rest but each individual is different – we need to understand the purpose of why we are taking a break.
“If the purpose is to recharge, reinvigorate or inspire the mind, then a change in sport, or even intensity, may be the way to go.”
Physiotherapist Rachael Burke, who also coaches grassroots level youth sport, agrees.
The off-season is a prime opportunity to get involved in another sport and develop another skillset, she says.
There should be a good variety of different types of sports that require different skills across a 12-month period, such as ball sports mixed with water sports mixed with fun, recreational activities.
“At this age the focus should be on developing a wide range of skills that will then carry them through life.”
Youth sport is about being all-inclusive too, not just prioritising the talented.
And there is limited evidence to suggest that specialising early in sport, or only focussing on those who show talent early, will continue that growth trajectory.
“People focus on a small amount of athletes, such as Tiger Woods and Serena Williams, as examples of spotting talent early and continuing their sport throughout,” says Dom.
But, Dom says, most high performance athletes at the top tried multiple sports up until 18 years old, and likewise many athletes were actually not considered as talented in their sport at an early age, but rather progressed.
He uses former All Black great Richie McCaw as an example – he failed to make Secondary Schools NZ XV.
“We risk missing out on special talents if we are not inclusive – being all inclusive is better because it doesn’t belittle youth skillset, it allows them to try more sport, it reduces fear of not belonging or not being accepted and limits comparisons.
“By doing this we enhance a culture of youth learning to freely express themselves with limited judgement.”
Sport can offer the opportunity for our youth to belong, says Rachael.
“Kids develop at different rates and there is no way to tell in the youth and adolescents who is going to be the next big talent.
“As children grow and have growth spurts there can be a huge variety of skills, co-ordination, maturity and development amongst an age group.
“While it’s easy to focus on the apparently talented, it is the role of youth sport and those involved in it to help in the development, growth and co-ordination of all.
“Developing these skills at a young age can be life changing – sport also offers an opportunity to develop social skills, confidence and resilience so is not just about the physical.”
It’s also important for coaches, parents and youth themselves to take the time to get fit for their chosen sport in order to avoid injury.
Activity levels may have fluctuated during lockdown and alert levels, but there’s no point going from very little to full-on – it’s the quickest way to injury not performance.
“Youth and adolescents have an immature skeletal system which is vulnerable to injury when subjected to high loads and/or a sudden increase in training,” explains Rachael.
“Children don’t respond the way adults do to training loads and this needs to be managed with care.
“The consequence of overloading the immature skeleton is the increased risk of growth plate injuries that can have long-term effects as their skeleton develops.”
Rachael suggests a progressive increase in training, along with sport-specific injury prevention strategies and a focus on recovery post trainings and games.
“This does at times need to be individualised and appropriate to the developmental stage and abilities of the adolescent.”
Keeping the fun in sport, especially in these times when frustration and anxiety is heightened, is vital as well.
“Not only are children’s skeletons immature and still developing, so are their cognitive or mental abilities.
“It’s important the children develop a healthy relationship with sport, with winning and losing, that they build resilience and feel supported.
“It’s a time for coaches and parents to encourage a passion for a sport and focus on building confidence over results.”
Reinforce good memories by including mini-games, being creative with drills and new ways to play.
Giving players some autonomy over training sessions can increase the fun too, as can distraction games.
Most of all, focus on connection among teammates, not on winning and losing.
“It is normal to feel anxious and frustrated in sport,” says Dom, “it’s not about reducing this but learning how to manage it in a way that is helpful to their performance”.
“The secret to success in life and sport is the art of showing courage, and you cannot show courage without fear – the greater the fear, the greater the opportunity to show courage!
“When courage becomes the marker of success in any team, this can foster an environment of fun and freely expressing themselves on the pitch, field, pool or track.”
Dom’s top five ways to put wellbeing at the heart of youth sport:
1. Fun and courage are the markers of success– messaging of “play sport rather than work sport”
2. Underpinning any team culture is to come from a place of care and connection first and foremost. Putting care and connection at the forefront of any culture does not compromise performance
3. Encourage education for coaches or sports organisations to understand where to get wellbeing support and help for themselves and for their athletes. A lot of coaches don’t actually know how to access help, or assume it is going to be costly
4. Education for parents on how to support the wellbeing of their young person
5. Empower youth to be able to acknowledge and speak up when they feel their wellbeing is compromised.
Rachael’s top five ways to put wellbeing at the heart of youth sport:
1. An individualised approach where possible. It’s not a one size fits all
2. Focus on building skills both physically and mentally rather than focusing on results
3. Build confidence and use positive language
4. Teach kids to deal with winning and losing in the same manner
5. As an adult, be it coach, manager or parent, be a positive influence and mimic the traits you are trying to teach.
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