Simon Walters: Sport first, winning can come later

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Children seem to value coaches who are fair and emphasise the game, not beating the opposition. Photo / Getty Images
Children seem to value coaches who are fair and emphasise the game, not beating the opposition. Photo / Getty Images

Children love playing the game but don't like pushy parents, writes Simon Walters, senior lecturer at the School of Sport and Recreation at AUT University.

After the success of the Rugby World Cup it will be interesting to see if the public support during the event will translate into an increase in the numbers of children playing what is commonly regarded as the national sport.

With the rugby season under way it is probably timely to revisit the debate about the benefits of sport for children.

The traditional "benefits" usually include teamwork, discipline, leadership skills, competition, and the development of wider social skills. Many parents seem to see participation in team sports as a rite of passage for their children.

The organisation of children's sport is highly regulated, structured, competitive and adult-controlled.

But what about asking children what they want from sport?

We recently did a number of studies funded by Sport NZ looking at the impact of adult sideline behaviour on children aged 6 to 11.

The children we interviewed play sport primarily for fun, to be with their mates, and to learn new skills. They like winning, but not at all costs, and over-riding this was a sense of fairness.

It was important that all children got equal game time, were exposed to different positions, and did not get yelled at by coaches or parents when they made a mistake.

They also did not like being constantly told what to do, as it tended to confuse rather than help them and made it harder for them to concentrate on executing a skill.

What these children valued about sport matches much of the coaching literature from the last couple of decades and what was found in American studies by Terry Orlick in the 1970s.

However, when the behaviour of coaches or parents is questioned, concerns are readily dismissed as "politically correct". Kids need to "toughen up", and fundamentally sport is about winning and kids need to learn how to be winners.

As a consequence, no meaningful debate ensues. In our interviews, children spoke very little about the importance of winning. Winning feels good, but these children appeared to put it into perspective as this exchange with an 11-year-old boy shows:

One thing you haven't said about what you like is winning.

Well winning, it makes you feel good but if you lose you just try better next time. It's not like you're really, really disappointed or anything ... I only play sport for the fun of it, it's not really competitive or anything for me.

But you like playing at representative level.

Yeah, but if we don't win or get into the finals it's not like I'm really upset or anything.

A 10-year-old boy said the most important thing was to have fun. "It's not if you win or lose," he said. "My coach thinks it's if you win or lose, but it's if you have fun."

Guidelines for children's sport produced by Sport NZ and national and regional sporting organisations all advocate coaching approaches that focus on long-term athlete development.

However, although children spoke about a number of positive coaches, too many stories emerged that revealed coaching practices that clashed with these guidelines. For instance, a 9-year-old girl observed that in a mixed touch rugby team the boys got more game time than the girls.

What do you think of that?

It's like saying that us girls aren't as good as the boys.

The effects of negative sporting experiences on children are well documented. As concerns grow about physical activity levels, studies show that adolescents are increasingly withdrawing from organised team sports.

Although teenagers withdraw from sport for a range of reasons, negative childhood experiences are often cited.

Coaches fill an important role in children's lives, and the impact of their behaviour can be far-reaching:

Why did you stop playing cricket? (to a boy aged 9)

I also began to play soccer because I had a better coach than cricket.

So why is your coach better at soccer do you think?

Because he always treats us as his equals ... But the coaches I don't really like, they only care about winning.

So if your soccer coach was your cricket coach ...

I'd still be doing cricket.

* * *

Evidence emerged relating to coaching practices that resulted in children not being exposed to different positions, physical exercise being used as a form of punishment after playing badly, and coaches consistently yelling at children when they did not obey instructions.

Further coach-observation studies we have conducted back up these findings. An over-controlling coaching environment results in children consistently being told what to do, being praised when they perform well and told off when they don't.

There is no space for learning by experience or for learning from mistakes. In the meantime, the media and armchair critics regularly criticise our professional teams for poor decision-making under pressure.

If we, as adults, listen to what children want, we can enhance their sporting experiences, and help them develop as independent decision-makers.

We may lose a few games along the way, but ultimately we will end up with more players, and who knows, perhaps more winners too.

- NZ Herald

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