The recent decision by North Harbour rugby to scrap representative teams below under 14 years has been polarising, especially if social media reaction is anything to go by.

The reason cited is the continuing falling player numbers in young people and that by having no young representative teams, they will be able to focus on development and fun.

This follows the lead of a number of netball centres across the country a few years ago who also decided that rep teams were putting young people off participating in their sport.

For years many sports codes have adopted the strategy that identifying talent at a young age will produce more and more high performing players at the top end.


But a mountain of research is now saying that the opposite is true. The 12-year-old who discovers they have no future in rugby because they have not made the 'rep team' will likely drop out because of it.

Fast forward six years, 60cm and 40kg and the player who dropped out could have been the next big thing in the game.

Or at least been good enough to play club rugby to a ripe old age. And yet he gave up at 12 because someone gave him the indication he was not good enough to make it.

Please do not to confuse this move by North Harbour with the 'everybody must be a winner' movement.

This is not dumbing down the sport like many will suggest – I actually believe it is ensuring the game reflects the speed at which young people develop, developing a pathway to success later in life without specialisation at a young age.

Every sport needs a traditional 'pathway pyramid' that starts with a huge player base and narrows to the 'pointy end' of high performance, but if the sport narrows that player base too early by driving kids away they actually end up with declines in ability and numbers, because the average 18-year-olds are now the best and only option.

For those that disagree, I urge you to look at the research promoted by Sport NZ from all over the world around why young people drop out of sport. Things like early specialisation have put pressure on them to perform, which in turn takes the fun out of actually participating.

And what's more, the kids are saying this for themselves – they are identifying the problem and yet until now the adults administering sport still think that they know best about what the solutions are!


Maybe it's time competitive parents, who focus so much on success and winning, actually take the time to listen to their children.

I am sure they will tell them that they primarily participate to have fun with their mates – sure, winning is a great feeling but I get the sense that having fun trumps even that.

They have their whole life to play the game they end up being good at, so why rush? After all, that's what we want them to do: participate for the rest of their lives.

It really is simple – below 14 years we should be encouraging young people to play multiple sports and develop a broader set of sport skills that will benefit them when they possibly do specialise later in life.

The only ones negatively impacted by this strategy are the parents living vicariously through their kids to succeed, where often they did not.