As reported recently in the Northern Advocate, Sport New Zealand's chief executive Peter Miskimmin was in town recently to outline the Crown agency's new strategic priorities for the next 12 years, and specifically its 2020-24 strategic plan to reinvigorate youth participation in play, active recreation and sport.

Miskimmin spoke to a range of representatives from organisations in the Northland active recreation and sport sector as part of a nationwide tour outlining the new strategy. He outlined the focus of the next four years is very much on reversing declining rates of participation in tamariki (children 5-11 years) and rangatahi (young people 12-18).

Miskimmin travelled to Northland two weeks ago to present Sport NZ's new strategy to Sport Northland staff. Photo / File
Miskimmin travelled to Northland two weeks ago to present Sport NZ's new strategy to Sport Northland staff. Photo / File

Sport NZ's Active NZ data shows that on average, 12-14 year-olds in this country participate in active recreation and sport for 12 and a half hours per week, but by the time they reach 18, this has almost halved to fewer than seven hours per week. This number then continues to drop as young people enter their 20s.

Specifically, Sport NZ's key result areas for the next four years are as follows:

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• Reduce the drop-off in physical activity from ages 12 to 18 years.

• Increase the physical activity levels of less active (< 7 hours/week) young people (5-18 years).

• Influence stakeholders to embed good quality and principled behaviour at all levels of the play, active recreation and sport system.

To be successful in this strategy, Sport NZ has identified that the quality of experience that young people receive in active recreation and sport must significantly improve from the current level.

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The specific focus in the 5-11 years bracket will be on quality physical education at school and a renewed emphasis on children's opportunity to simply play. Children in their formative years need to develop their physical literacy skills, which in turn will give them the best chance of being active for life.

In the 12-18 years cohort, the priority will be on quality active recreation and sport. There is an opportunity to deliver a broader range of activities to youth by better understanding and responding to their needs, not what adults think they want.

For this to occur providers of active recreation and sport need to have the systems in place, and take the time necessary, to understand what youth want in order to be regularly active.

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What we know from research is that, currently, young people are being turned off by the wrong type of competition, the over-focus on winning and selection of representative teams, as well as early specialisation into one sport. We also know that childhood success in sport is not a reliable predictor of adult success, and that if a child drops out because of a lack of early success, they are likely to be lost to the sport forever.

Unfortunately, the media has really only focused on the competition and winning aspect of this research, fuelling the naysayers' arguments. I agree that most young people still want to keep score and be involved in competition, but many of them just want it in a different format than what is currently occurring, or they want new activities not currently being provided. And the focus on being selected into rep teams turns many of them off the sport.

Sports codes need to take notice of this research and ensure they are designing competitions and formats of their sport which excite all young people rather than turn some of them away; and in addition to schools focusing on students representing the school at external competitions, they also need to take heed of what other students desire, by designing activities that are student-focused and student-led, are fun and that have the ability for students to participate with their friends.

Note that none of what is proposed above is intended to inhibit the progression of our young Northland sporting talent – we know how successful this talent is on the national stage, and therefore this pathway needs to be preserved, just from an older age than what is currently occurring.

What is being proposed is for the benefit of those that are dropping out along the way – and if this decline can be arrested then actually more youth will be available to choose from for the older rep teams, thereby increasing the number of kids to choose from and in turn the number who could make it to the top of their sporting code.

As Miskimmin mentioned at the strategy launch, the idea is for adults to make youth active recreation and sport activities inclusive for all young people, rather than exclusive for some.

It's hard to think anyone would not want that for our young people.