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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, football, netball, 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 non-traditional sports? 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 the non-traditional sports 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 establish 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 sports is sporting activities that have received mainstream recognition, and high levels of awareness, interest, and participation, for at least several generations. Conversely that would make non-traditional sports those which fall outside this grouping of mainstream activities.

As sport evolves, opportunities to play non-traditional sports are becoming more widespread. This trend is most perceptible across the youth sport landscape, and it’s arguable that children have never had a wider choice of potential sporting activities than they do now (to the chagrin of many school sport coordinators and sport directors). 

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 sports also presents an opportunity to increase participation in indigenous games and sports. Whether indigenous and non-traditional 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 sports — such as the traditional Māori sport 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 sports, 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 the youth sports space.

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 play a range of different games and sports, 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 a single sport can hinder children’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 sports, on the other hand, often provides a better variety of opportunities from which to develop movement skills and 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 our children still play traditional sports, non-traditional alternatives offer an effective way to supplement their sporting routines while ensuring that they engage in a range of different activities.

The development of fundamental movement skills — a particularly important function of youth sports — 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 entirely different patterns of movement to invasion games and other traditional sports, can provide some of the most effective environments in which to refine these skills.

Escaping the Cultural Norms of Mainstream Sports

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

Consequently, there are several benefits to young people — in terms of both their development and their long-term participation in sports — that non-traditional games and sports can potentially offer more effectively than their mainstream counterparts.

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 children learn — and perhaps adjust the nature of youth sports 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 sports 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 fostering development. 

While a growing number of traditional sports 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 a climber can learn from their coach, they must decide for themselves which handholds and footholds to reach for when they’re on the wall; or 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 encouraged to learn through guided discovery, is the creation of more child-led sports environments. In essence, this means environments where children are empowered to self-organise, and thereby experience greater autonomy over their learning and participation. As per the examples above, it’s arguable that non-traditional sports are more naturally aligned with this approach.

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, while also boosting their motivation to participate.
  • Increased freedom: participants 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. Games will frequently be self-organised, with rules enforced by the players themselves. This provides unique opportunities for social development.
  • Greater accessibility: participation beyond formal coaching sessions, where athletes can come and go at will, potentially increases the number of chances to play.
  • Opportunities for informal play: these opportunities are increasingly valuable as formalised coaching environments become more prominent across youth sports.
  • Participation due to enjoyment: children 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 child is different, and a huge range of factors — such as the prominence of competition, whether a sport is individual or team-based, and the extent to which participants are demographically mixed — will affect whether a particular sport and its culture resonate with them.

The wider the array of sports we enable young people to sample, the greater the likelihood that they find one which satisfies their unique wants, needs, and interests — a sport 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 a sport 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 sports — 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 playing sports fun.

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

Connecting Different Cultures

Once again, indigenous sports 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 to society as a whole. 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 games and sports 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 sport providers 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 non-traditional sports may give us an opportunity to challenge our attitudes towards competition. Within many traditional sports, we see performance narratives and premature professionalism creeping into the youth space. 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 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 non-traditional sports 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 children 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 play a sport — 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 children and introducing them to different options. Finding the sports 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 children won’t necessarily love every sport 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 young children 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 children — comprising both traditional and non-traditional games. This way, we can give children a rich and varied range of sporting experiences from which to ultimately determine the sports 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 sport. Areas to consider could include:

  • Movement: what kind of movement patterns does the sport encourage or require?
  • Fitness implications: how effectively does the sport help children build fitness? And how physically demanding is it?
  • Social environment: does the sport and its environment facilitate social interaction with other participants? Do participants come from a range of different backgrounds?
  • Culture: does the sport offer exposure to different cultures?
  • Technical components: what kinds of skills do participants get to practise? For instance, are they catching and running? Do they use bats and balls? 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?

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 crucial. And non-traditional games 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 games give children more choice — making it easier for every child to find a form of physical activity that suits them.
  • Increased participation in indigenous sports can enhance cultural awareness across society, and facilitate greater integration between different communities.
  • We must give children a variety of sporting experiences, thereby maximising their chances of finding the sport(s) that they love.

Image Source: jandrielombard from Getty Images

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