With the junior winter sport season done and dusted, one of the biggest reflections for me after being around so much youth sport during the winter was what a powerful life learning experience the whole sporting environment can be.

The winning, the losing, the team group dynamics, supporting each other, coping with criticism, coping with physical pain, I could go on and on - all the realities of life.

But one of the biggest opportunities for learning, but one where we often miss the boat as coaches and parents, is the junk food.

Long, long ago, there once was a time where oranges ruled the world - some sweet fresh oranges were all that was required to keep kids happy through the duration of Saturday morning sport.

Advertisement

Ah yes, those were the days ... whatever happened to the good old oranges?
Well, they still do exist, but they're becoming pretty scarce.

These days, no sooner have the kids crossed the white line, back off the field at the duration of the game, and woomfa - in comes the chocolate, or maybe some of those colourful snakes.

It's an adult thing, how many times have you heard it ... "oh come on now, let them have some fun - here, have a bag of lollies", or "come on, let them be kids" ...?

It's all based on this assumption we grown-ups have, that for kids to have fun they need cake!

Well, as crazy as it sounds, they don't actually need the junk to have fun ... I know, I've seen it myself.

True story, one time I was at a kid's party, and they were all running around outside among a cacophony of screaming happiness, no junk food or fizzy in sight - they were all just excited to be playing with each other ... weird I know.

But back to the sporting experience for children, it's so much more than just about the game - it's all the life skills that go with it - so why on earth would we want to drum into them that junk food is what we do.

Sure, we all indulge sometimes, but there is a time and a place, and it's how we message it with the children, and the risk is we are linking indulging directly to their sport and exercise experience. Later in life that habit can transition from indulging in sweets, to overindulging in other products after the game.

Too often junk food is used as a reward, even for great academic exploits at school, and then if you have been naughty, exercise is used as a punishment, "get outside and run around the field".

Therefore, we are training them from a young age that junk food is a great thing, and exercise is to be avoided.

Sport can have such an impact on the lives of young athletes, so why do we currently feel the need to hand out a whole lot of chocolate at the end of the game?

One minute the kids are happily chatting away, excited at the end of the match, then before you know it, all the team buzz is killed, and they become a bunch of stunned mullets staring at a big bag of junk that a well-meaning supporter thinks the kids desperately need - it's like somehow we think we are being mean if we don't give it to them.

Rather than bribing kids into enjoying their sport, let's help them find that internal love and pure joy of the match itself. If they find that, then they will be hooked on the game forever, and be set up for a lifelong involvement in sport and all the healthy outcomes that come with it.

I know I'm mad, the junk food in kids' sports seems so obviously wrong on so many levels - yet we still do it. So how did we get here? Have the marketers successfully brainwashed us all, or is it that sugar addiction we hear about?

Whatever the reason, putting chemicals and sugar into the young child's still developing cells isn't good. Their physiology all firing straight after a game, screaming out for any goodness it can get - and we feed it junk.

Sure, having some fun with the kids after the match is vital family time, but we can try to avoid the explicit link between the sport and a treat ... ie. casually getting something nice after the team has disassembled, or on the way home, is quite different to bribing to play, or instantly dishing out treats after the final whistle.

If we have to trick them into enjoying their sport, we're not doing our job properly.

Sport is a powerful vehicle for impacting the community - so perhaps health and lifestyle promotion groups could align more closely with sports to help achieve their outcomes, and we could all be a bit more mindful of the subtle messages we are passing on to the kids.

Marcus Agnew is the health and sport development manager at Hawke's Bay Community Fitness Centre Trust and is also a lecturer in sports science at EIT. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.