Sport New Zealand Logo
Sport New Zealand Logo

Sign Up

Already signed up? Click here to login
Sport New Zealand Logo

Sign Up


How much is too much when it comes to youth sport?

How much is too much when it comes to youth sport?

How to coach with a Balance is Better philosophy

How to coach with a Balance is Better philosophy

Balance is Better Principles Poster

Balance is Better Principles Poster

Creating a positive parent culture

Creating a positive parent culture

Unpacking the Balance is Better principles

Unpacking the Balance is Better principles

Running good trials and selections

Running good trials and selections

Balanced Female Health

Balanced Female Health

The Benefits of Non-Traditional Games and Sports

Non-traditional games and sports are enjoying a surge in popularity in New Zealand. Sporting offerings beyond mainstream activities such as rugby, soccer, netball, basketball, and cricket are more accessible than ever, giving children and parents a wealth of options when choosing the athletic pursuits that best meet their needs. But what, exactly, are they? And what are the implications of choosing a non-traditional sport instead of, or alongside, mainstream alternatives?

Below, we consider what defines a non-traditional sport, explore some of the options within this space, and discuss the importance of giving children a wide variety of sporting experiences. In doing so, we touch on some of the benefits associated with non-traditional sports, before finally advising parents on how to create the best mixture of sporting opportunities for their children.

What Are Non-Traditional Sports?

Given the lack of a fixed definition, it can be hard to assert the parameters of non-traditional games and sports. A common interpretation of traditional or ‘conventional’ sports is sporting activities that have received mainstream recognition, and high levels of awareness, interest, and participation, for at least several generations. Ball sports like netball, rugby, and soccer are particularly prominent examples. Conversely non-traditional sports could be considered those which fall outside this grouping of mainstream activities.

As sport evolves, opportunities to break from traditional forms of physical activity are becoming more widespread. This trend is most perceptible across the youth sport landscape, and it’s arguable that kids have never had a wider choice of potential sporting activities than they do now (to the chagrin of many school physical education organisers). 

Non-traditional sports — ranging from surfing and skateboarding to climbing and breakdancing — are gaining popularity and themselves entering the mainstream sporting conversation; while sport climbing became an Olympic sport at Tokyo 2020, breaking is set to make its Olympic debut in 2024.

Deviation from mainstream activities also presents an opportunity to increase participation in indigenous games. Whether non-traditional and indigenous games fall within the same category may be a topic for debate, but the chance to improve engagement in these activities should also be welcomed. Widespread participation in indigenous games — such as the traditional Māori pastime of Ki O Rahi, or the Indian game of Kabati — helps to safeguard and celebrate different areas of cultural heritage, and can be invaluable in helping young individuals develop a strong sense of cultural identity.

Many mainstream sporting activities, particularly team sports, have enjoyed a privileged position in society — often in the form of extra funding, better access to facilities, greater numbers of coaches and competitions, and enhanced overall awareness — which itself perpetuates their increased levels of participation. But there is a huge array of options beyond the activities that have traditionally commanded most attention within physical education programmes and the youth sports space in general.

Below, we explore some of the unique benefits that non-traditional games and sports can provide young people.

Using Non-Traditional Games to Build Skills

Encouraging children to participate in a range of different physical activities, whether traditional or non-traditional, is a proven way to support well rounded and positive development. A growing body of research shows that early specialisation in just one sport can hinder young people’s athletic, psychological, and social development; increase their susceptibility to overuse injuries and mental burnout; and diminish their levels of motivation, often causing them to stop participating.

Playing multiple other sports, however, often provides a better variety of opportunities from which to develop physical literacy; the social benefits of encountering a wider range of people and environments; and a variety of experiences from which to derive enjoyment and motivation. Even if kids still engage in traditional sporting activities, non-traditional alternatives offer an effective way to supplement their routines while ensuring that they engage in a range of different activities.

The development of fundamental movement skills — a particularly important function of physical education and out-of-school sports clubs — is also enhanced by playing non-traditional sports. It’s vital, for both their long-term health and their overall development as humans, that young children experience a complex range of movements in order to develop coordination and build an in-depth ‘movement library’. Non-traditional games, many of which require participants to move in entirely different ways to invasion games and other conventional sports, can provide some of the most effective environments in which to refine these skills.

Escaping the Cultural Norms of Mainstream Sporting Activities

Furthermore, non-traditional sporting activities are often less influenced by the cultural norms embedded within mainstream sporting environments. For instance, they may be less focused upon competitive outcomes or results; offer more mixed participatory groups when it comes to characteristics like age, gender, or ability; place a greater emphasis on fun and learning; or take place within structures that are less hierarchical (for example, where less significance is given to team selections, or where coaches are less commanding and more facilitative).

Providing Exposure to Different World Views

As well as giving kids exposure to different cultures, and the different sporting outlooks mentioned above, non-traditional sports give us opportunities to challenge our own perceptions of how young people learn — and perhaps adjust the nature of their sporting environments accordingly. Among the most significant areas for consideration are our approaches to coaching, and the extent to which we give young athletes autonomy.

Breaking With Traditional Coaching Norms

Crucially, non-traditional environments could offer more scope to escape traditional coach-led understandings of skill acquisition. Many traditional coaching approaches are founded upon giving instructions and delivering neat, organised sessions in which athletes’ actions and decisions are largely prescribed. But research into skill acquisition increasingly shows that less prescriptive sporting environments, in which athletes are encouraged to make their own decisions and learn through guided discovery, are more effective in engaging them and helping them to improve. 

While a growing number of traditional environments are making this ideological shift, non-traditional environments, more free from tradition or institutional rigour, may be more attuned to this approach. For example, while someone trying climbing can learn from their coach, they must decide for themselves which handholds and footholds to reach for when they’re on the wall; we naturally see the sport as a good way to help kids exercise and develop coordination, but climbing is also an activity inherently associated with decision-making; similarly, a child experimenting in a skate park may learn by watching another skater execute a trick and trying to copy them; no coach is even required.

Facilitating Child-Led Sporting Environments

An extension of increasingly facilitative learning environments, in which athletes are invited to learn through guided discovery, is the creation of more child-led sports environments. In essence, this means environments where kids are empowered to self-organise, and thereby experience greater autonomy over their learning and participation.

Returning to the case of skating, it’s notable that most participants take part in settings where there are no rules or designated outcomes to aspire to; they identify their own objectives, either independently or with peers and friends, and have fun.

The most significant benefits of child-led sporting environments include:

  • More autonomy: children feel a greater sense of ownership of their sporting journey. This helps them to develop their decision-making skills, while also boosting their motivation to participate.
  • Increased freedom: when the focus is simply participation, kids are often less encumbered by expectations or the pressure of failure, which in turn fosters a culture of learning through experimentation.
  • Broader range of social experiences: participants are likelier to be mixed, rather than divided by demographic characteristics or attributes such as age, gender, or ability. A game will frequently be self-organised, with teams selected and rules enforced by the players themselves. This provides unique opportunities for social development. Interestingly, we’ll also frequently find that kids set rules and organise teams very effectively, so that there is an appropriate level of challenge and competitiveness for all participants.
  • Greater accessibility: participation beyond formal coaching sessions, where athletes can come and go at will, potentially increases the number of chances to play. Naturally, increased access to different forms of physical education and activity will help kids to exercise, build fitness, and develop physical literacy, ultimately creating positive long-term health outcomes for our young people.
  • Opportunities for informal play: these opportunities are increasingly valuable as formalised coaching environments become more prominent.
  • Participation due to enjoyment: kids are more likely to participate due to a love of the process, not the pursuit of specific outcomes.

Offering a Sporting Culture to Suit Every Child

The range and diversity of options afforded by non-traditional sports also significantly increases the chances of every child finding the sporting culture that suits them. Every individual is different, and a huge range of factors — such as the prominence afforded to competitive outcomes, whether a game is individual or played in teams, and the extent to which participants are demographically mixed — will affect whether a particular activity and its sporting culture resonates with them.

The wider the array of sporting activities we enable kids to sample, the greater the likelihood that they find one which satisfies their unique wants, needs, and interests — something that they enjoy, and in which they can experience a fulfilling level of competence. In turn, this will increase their chances of continuing to participate throughout childhood and later in life.

Non-traditional sports allow us to broaden the spectrum of sporting opportunities we give young people during this crucial sampling period, thereby increasing the likelihood that they find an activity they love, engage with it completely, and remain physically active (and healthy) throughout their lives.

The Social and Psychological Benefits of Non-Traditional Sports

Maximising Enjoyment and Increasing Participation

The resolve to ensure that children enjoy participating should be at the heart of all youth sport programmes — no matter what other outcomes we hope to achieve. Young people have an increasingly large array of sporting options and other leisure activities competing for their time and interest. If we want them to stay active, it’s vital that we make participation fun.

As mentioned, by widening the list of available options, we make it easier for kids to ‘find their tribe’, and the proliferation of choice means it’s likelier than ever that there is an activity to appeal to every child. In fact, non-traditional games have already proven to be an effective way to engage non-participating kids in physical activity.

Connecting Different Cultures

Once again, indigenous sporting activities also play an important role in the revitalisation of different cultures, and in fostering greater cultural integration within society. The prevalence of games like Ki O Rahi can empower minority communities, while also making indigenous cultures more accessible. Many Māori games, for example, expose participants to Māori language and customs — potentially providing a springboard for interested participants to seek greater education and involvement in Māori culture.

Thus, indigenous sporting activities not only help children to stay active, but can contribute to their understanding of different cultures and help to strengthen the ties within our communities.

For a wider overview of how programme directors can design and adapt activities to be more culturally responsive for Māori, read about Sport New Zealand’s Te Whetū Rehua framework.

Reframing the Significance of Competition

Finally, the increasing prominence of alternative sports may give us an opportunity to challenge our attitudes towards results and competitive outcomes. Within many traditional athletic spaces, we see performance narratives and premature professionalism creeping in — even at youth level. But this mentality can undermine the enjoyment and long-term participation of young athletes.

Research shows that some young people either do not include a competitive focus among the characteristics they prioritise in a sports environment, or even find it a disincentive to participation. Further to this, while participation in physical activity generally falls from the Year 10 cohort onwards, a large number of students state that they would be more likely to stay involved in sports if able to sample a broader range of activities before committing to one.

Once more, increasing access to activities beyond traditional sporting options could help us to address some of these concerns, and thereby appeal to young people who feel disillusioned with mainstream alternatives.

Helping Your Child Choose a Non-Traditional Sport

Parents are uniquely positioned to help their kids choose the sporting experiences that best suit their needs. Different sports pose their own distinct challenges (for instance, some include physical contact, others are non-contact) within their own specific environments (some place emphasis on competition, while others do not). Therefore it’s important for parents to think about the biological, psych-social, and emotional needs of their children and consider them in the context of various sporting environments when contemplating which environments could be a good fit.

Of course, we should never force a child to engage in something — this is likely to undermine their sense of enjoyment and rob them of the intrinsic motivation to participate. But parents do have a crucial role in guiding their kids and introducing them to different options. Finding the activities that best ‘fit’ a child can be a complex process, so we should start by talking (and listening) to children, and endeavouring to learn what they want, before simply signing them up to particular activities. Just asking a child what they find fun, or why they play sports, can be a great place to start.

It’s also important to remember that kids won’t necessarily love everything they try; it’s okay for them to experience something new, persevere for a while, and then decide to devote their time to something else. In fact, we should encourage them to sample many different sports in order to maximise their chances of finding the ones that really resonate with them.

With this in mind, it may help parents to think about designing a smorgasbord of sporting opportunities for their kids — comprising both traditional and non-traditional activities and sports. This way, we can give children a rich and varied range of sporting experiences from which to ultimately determine the ones that are ‘right’ for them.

When designing a ‘sporting smorgasbord’, parents should think about the key characteristics of potential sports and their environments. This could be done by simply creating a list of considerations to assess for each game or athletic activity. Areas to consider could include:

  • Movement: what kind of movement patterns does the activity encourage or require?
  • Fitness implications: how effectively does the sport help children build fitness and coordination (and thus benefit their long-term health)? And how physically demanding is it?
  • Social setting: does the sport, and the way it is delivered, facilitate social interaction with other participants? Do participants come from a range of backgrounds?
  • Culture: does the sport offer exposure to different cultures?
  • Technical components: what kinds of skills do participants get to practise? How is the game played? For instance, are they catching and running? Do they use a bat and ball? Are they climbing or balancing?
  • Transferable skills: do participants develop skills that complement their other athletic pursuits?
  • Community: what is the context of the sporting environment? Is there a community of parents, coaches, volunteers, and/or other facilitators to support participants?
  • Competitiveness: what are the desired outcomes within the sporting environment? Are competition and winning a priority, or are participants simply encouraged to play and have fun? Does it promote values like teamwork and fair play?

The weighting we give to characteristics such as these, and any others we may choose, should be different for every child, based upon their own individual wants and needs. Most importantly, we should guide children towards choosing an array of sports that meet those wants and needs differently. Variety is essential. And non-traditional sports are an excellent way to provide it.

In Summary

  • Non-traditional sports, which fall outside the grouping of mainstream sporting activities, are growing in popularity.
  • Indigenous games and sports are also becoming more accessible.
  • Non-traditional sports can help us to move beyond traditional, coach-led approaches to skill acquisition.
  • It’s important for children to practise a range of different movements and develop a varied ‘movement library’.
  • Non-traditional sporting activities give children more choice — making it easier for every child to find a form of exercise that suits them.
  • By encouraging more children to engage in physical activity, we can help to produce positive health outcomes for future generations.
  • Increased participation in indigenous sports can enhance cultural awareness across society, and facilitate greater integration between different communities.
  • We must give kids a variety of sporting experiences, thereby maximising their chances of finding the sport(s) that they love.

Image Source: jandrielombard from Getty Images

Sign up for our newsletter

Hidden Checkbox (Hidden)

More from Supporting your child


A parent guide to child growth and development in sport

In this guide we discuss the key considerations relating to children’s growth and development that may influence their sport experience.  This guide was adapted from work by Sport Parent EU. It is published...

Female Athletes and the Menstrual Cycle

Traditionally, education around the menstrual cycle has focused on reproduction. But this can overlook the many other vital health outcomes associated with the menstrual cycle. At Balance is Better, we...

Most popular this week

Value of sport

The Benefits of Community Sport

The benefits of physical activity and playing sport are far-reaching. For participants, research shows that sport is a form of recreation that makes us remain active, and be happier, healthier people. At a community level, we know sport...

What Is a Coaching Philosophy?

Our coaching philosophy is essentially the framework around which we build our coaching approach. It’s the product of our beliefs and values, and has a huge impact on our coaching methodologies and the way we work with others....