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Temepara Bailey on why young people shouldn’t specialise too soon

A considerable amount of evidence has demonstrated that most athletes who have the opportunity to play a range of sports in their youth are more likely to achieve an elite level of performance in sport.

Elite athletes with multisport backgrounds often speak about how exposure to different sports as a child helped them develop skills and exposed them to different movement patterns that when transferred into the sport that they focused on later in life, supported them to excel. Elite athletes also discuss how playing a variety of sports means they picked up valuable lessons through different coaches, teammates and cultures, which helped them be much more adaptable later in life.

Silver Ferns legend Temepara Bailey is no exception. Growing up she dabbled in gymnastics, netball, touch, volleyball and basketball.

Bailey retired from international netball at the age of 35, having played in 89 test matches for the Silver Ferns including their sensational win against Australia in the final of the 2003 Netball World Championships.

“Playing a lot of sports when I was younger has definitely helped my career as a netballer. Just the different skills you get… it’s also helped the longevity that I’ve had in my career because playing different sport obviously offers different body movements and uses your whole body in different ways.”

Bailey wasn’t alone in her rich sporting upbringing, reeling off the names of fellow players who also played other sports or chose to specialise in netball at a later age.

“Through my career I wasn’t the only one that played another sport competitively. We had Belinda Colling and Donna Loffhagen who played basketball. Anna Scarlett who was into volleyball. Liana Leota who was in the New Zealand touch team as well. Look at the way they play the game – they are just so explosive, innovative, instinctive. I think the New Zealand style of game is about flair and that flair comes from experiencing different sports and skill level that’s combined into one and it’s just like, wow.”

As a coach Bailey understands the drive that parents have to encourage their children to specialise in the sport they show talent in, a myth has been engrained in our sporting culture.

“I would say to parents and coaches who want the kids to specialise, just don’t do it. Don’t do it. Let them go out there and play a lot of different sports. I know from experience that you actually gain a lot more skills and skills that you won’t get taught in that specialised sport.

”As a parent, coach, administrator to any sport, it’s our responsibility to give these kids opportunities. We need to let them be kids and choose what they want to do, and obviously be there for a guideline, but give them the opportunity to experience different skills and sports. And not just on the field, you also get off-field things that you get with different sports.”

Part of the process, she says, is putting aside our own adult expectations and taking time to listen to what young people want and what motivates them.

“If we’re saying to our kids, go out there and play what you want and be who you want, we need to understand who they are. Because sometimes as coaches we don’t understand our players and what makes them tick – what they like, what they don’t like. We need to be a lot better at that as coaches, but also as parents too.”

“One of the key things I love to do is to get to know my players – on and off the court. That’s the time you find gold.”

Outside of understanding a young person’s motivation and desires, it’s important we challenge our own notions of success.

“What is success in the younger generation? It could be different for every child or kid that’s playing out there. It could be turning up, it could be making a new friend, it could be having the oranges on the sideline afterwards, playing for the team next year.

“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’.

“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.”

Bailey hopes that the Keep up with the play campaign will challenge adults to rethink their own roles, expectations and behaviour. She is passionate about improving sporting experiences for young people, using sport as a driver for positive change in the health and wellbeing of young people and our country.

“My hope for the future, looking ahead 10 years and being involved in this public awareness campaign, is that we’re going to have a lot of kids involved in sport, and it doesn’t matter what sport it is, they are just involved. Also, that we have healthier happier kids in our country. And when we get to start that pyramid to the top, that the skill level is going to be out of this world and we are going to be world leaders going forward.”