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

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How to coach with a Balance is Better philosophy

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What does sport in a non-traditional format look like? Ideas for sport leaders and administrators

Unshackling our ties to tradition can sometimes allow for the creation of exciting and better sport experiences for young people.

We often wed sport to tradition. Old photos on walls, trophies in cabinets and uniforms, banners and pennants hung up around the rafters proudly. And under the guise of upholding this tradition, we deem, the rules we abide by to deliver our favourite game, immutable. However, it is this very attitude that often puts sports at peril. You see – just because we enjoyed the experience our sport provided as a young person doesn’t mean young people today will. So, what can one of the world’s oldest and least ‘open’ sporting contests teach grassroots sport? (Clue: it’s to do with competition structures). 

It’s generally agreed that the oldest ‘modern’ international sporting competition is the America’s Cup. 

First contested in 1851, the original America’s Cup regatta consisted of just one race, around the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England. The foil-less 100-foot schooner ‘America’ comfortably beat 15 other boats. America, apparently, was already great. 

Since then, as we know, the types of boats and the Cup’s competition structure have changed dramatically and repeatedly. There are, of course, many reasons for this (e.g. technology), and some may argue a few of the changes have been for the worse. 

But what can’t be argued is that the recent holders of the cup, along with the other syndicates, have never shied away from trying to find new and exciting ways to engage with, and stay relevant to, fans, media, and sponsors alike. 

Perhaps a more relatable sporting example of dramatic changes in competition structures is cricket – is it really only 32-and-a-bit years since Kerry Packer and the rebel World Cricket Series show-cased limited overs matches to the world? Since then, of course, the popular 50-over format has been joined by T20s.  

The wider lesson here is that sports need to consistently review the sporting experiences they are offering their participants (in the widest sense) if they want to be around in 120 years. 

Tradition can be, of course, a strength – the All Blacks being one of the world’s best examples of that; and it will be interesting to see how Test cricket (men’s and women’s) continues to fit into cricket’s suite of offerings. 

However, it’s increasingly clear that to keep sport fun and relevant for young people today, tradition may sometimes need to stand aside to allow for innovative participation and performance opportunities to emerge. 

The big question 

As sport and non-sport leisure opportunities compete for more attention and time from young people (and more money from parents’ pockets), sports need to look hard at their participation ‘products’, and ask themselves, is this what kids today want to consume? Is it meeting their needs – social, emotional, and physical? Is it serving the best interests of parents, officials, and clubs in terms of cost, transport, time, logistics, etc? 

A part of this ‘hard look’ is recognising that not all kids have a strongly competitive focus. Most kids enjoy the excitement of scoring tries or goals, or going faster than someone else, but not all want to do so at the expense of fun, connecting with friends, and simply getting some exercise.  

And some don’t care what ‘the score’ is. For these kids, participating in less ‘traditional’ forms of a sport may be one way to keep them involved. Maybe the only way. In fact, Sport NZ’s Active NZ survey suggests that the formal organised sport offering is only relevant for the minority of those who say they play sport – most young people consider their sport participation is “non-competitive”. 

And even if you think you know what this experience might look and feel like, make sure you ask the young people. They will appreciate the opportunity to let you know what they want and what will keep them coming back. 

Young people tell us sport and physical activity become less enjoyable as they progress through their teens – they are among the least satisfied with their club sport experiences. 

While the sport system generally accommodates disparity in size and skill level through customised competitions, there tends to be a consistent delivery model (e.g. 16-week competitions, selection and trials, standard and inflexible team sizes, formalised coaching) that does not fit the changing lifestyles of youth nor accommodate their changing motivations to be involved. Year 9 competition structures tend to mirror those in Year 13, but the audience is different. 

After Year 10, participation decreases year-on-year in both sport and active recreation in this age group1. Young people tell us they would play more sport if they could try different codes before they committed to playing, could play friendly games where the result was not a focus, and if they were better at the sports available. One of the most regularly reported disincentives to participation is the competitive nature of the available offerings, particularly for girls. 

Choice is increasingly impacted by lengthened and clashing sports seasons, and a drive by sports organisations to deliver year-round offerings. This means young people do not have a break between seasons, and increasingly are being forced to choose either a winter or summer sport – but not both. 

– Secondary Age Review 2019, Sport New Zealand. 

So, what are some changes to traditional competition formats and participation opportunities that we would encourage you to explore? 

  • Introducing formats to support late-entry novices (e.g. have-a-go programmes and ‘beginner’ classes where participants can feel safe to be ‘no good’ – that part’s really important!). 
  • Quick format events. For example, festival days where the focus is on participating and everyone gets the opportunity to participate for the same amount of time, and/or in lots of positions; bite-sized competitions that don’t take all weekend or all day; ‘pop up’ events in non-traditional locations such as local parks or at the beach. 
  • Shortening the length of current seasons and avoiding season overlap to ensure that there are ‘breaks’ between seasons; or separating the representative season from the club season to avoid overload on some players, parents, officials, and administrators. 
  • Modifying game rules to ‘increase time on task’ (and provide participants with the chance to co-design modified rules). For example, making sure everyone plays a range of positions in a game. 
  • Provide more opportunities for self-selected teams. 
  • Removing the publication of competition tables and results for certain ages or grades. 
  • For schools, creating intra-school competitions or exploring opportunities for ‘local school’ competitions. 
  • Mixed gender teams and competitions – can these be extended to older age groups through a change of format or rules. Yes, safety and/or fairness may be a consideration, but is it possible to mitigate these? 
  • Create events and competition with a whanau and family focus. 

Significantly, Sport NZ’s, Secondary Age Review (2019), outlined the following suggestions for sport leader and administrators looking to adapt their offerings to better meet the needs of rangatahi: 

  • In secondary school settings, distinguish between Year 9-10, and Year 11-13 cohorts and present a wider range of offers in the older age group.
  • Make ‘choice’ a fundamental principle; enforce seasonality, discourage early specialisation and year-round offerings to young people, and incentivise variety in offerings to young people. 
  • The sport system should adopt more agile approaches to sport design and delivery and be prepared to regularly change their offerings as young people’s motivations and personal circumstances change. 
  • Establish and make available a menu of options that meet young people’s confidence and competence levels, rather than technical and tactical sport skills and knowledge. These options should range from play, to health and fitness activities, to outdoor recreation, to sport skill development opportunities – and should accommodate young people’s social needs. 
  • Specific initiatives and support structures should be developed for those with the most significant barriers to participation – particularly disabled young people or those from high deprivation communities. 

In practice 

The points and links below highlight practical examples from three sports and one organisation (School Sport New Zealand) who have introduced new participation opportunities or development programmes, or refreshed approaches to competitions. 

NZ Cricket 

  • A review drove the development of a different cricket-based participation option for girls.  
  • The ‘Yeah! Girls’ programme delivers 60 minutes of activities focusing on skill development, fun, and time with friends. 
  • The ‘activators’ on the programme are young and are carefully chosen and trained so the participants can relate to them. 
  • Case Study: New Zealand Cricket’s new social innovation: Yeah! Girls 

NZ Rugby 

  • NZ Rugby’s Game On initiative is designed to make sure rugby happens on a Saturday even if teams can’t field 15 players or they don’t have enough front rowers (No Defaults!). 
  • Flexible rules apply around the number of players, the game length, and scrums. 
  • Provincial Unions decide which grades or competitions Game On rules apply to. 
  • New Zealand Rugby Game On 

Netball NZ 

  • Changes to junior netball driven by a review and by research. 
  • The Player Development Programme (PDP) built on previously introduced (2013) modified versions of the game – fewer players per team, smaller courts, lower hoops. 
  • PDP aims to stop deselection at Years 7 & 8, and instead offer development opportunities to all Year 7 & 8 netballers. 
  • Case Study: Netball NZ 

School Sport NZ 

  • Changes and additions to the School Sport calendar driven by a review and feedback. 

NZ Football 

Read more: 

Sport NZ’s Secondary Age Review (2019) 

Learn more 

Have a community-based programme or project in mind that will help young people get active? Consider applying for funding through Tū Manawa Active Aotearoa.  

Image Source: Canva

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