A couple of weeks ago in Rotorua, I drove past a bunch of kids playing soccer on a Saturday morning. It brought back memories of years of sliding on my shin pads and two pairs of long socks, bellowing at whichever parent was closer to ask where my boots were ("Wherever you left them!" they'd holler back), and trudging out the door to go and spend a couple of hours playing right or centre back for Rotorua Central United soccer club.
I loved the time that I spent at soccer, squelching around in my boots and bossing the boys around. I was bigger than most of them back then, so I'd go in for a tackle, send them flying, then boot the ball back downfield to my teammates. We were a ragtag team of varying levels of talent, and we may not have won many matches, but we had fun.
Which is surely what sport should be all about at junior levels. While developing skills, aiming for excellence and hoping to win are all essential parts of sport, when it comes to school sport the most important thing should be that as many young people as possible are supported to have a go, and that they have fun.
Somewhere along the line, however, adults changed the tone in kids' sport. Parental bad behaviour on the sideline has become so much of an issue that Sport New Zealand has had to implore grown-ups to remember their manners when they're out supporting their kids. And then there's elite secondary school sport, which has been in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons lately.
Auckland private school Saint Kentigern College faced damning media reports late last year when it admitted importing members of rival first XV rugby teams to bolster its own top team. The practice of importing promising young athletes from areas outside of both zones and borders is well established at well-heeled schools where wealthy alumni fund lucrative scholarships, creating huge disadvantages for middle-of-the-road state schools. Where's the fun (and sportsmanship) in that?
Then, recently, even the small issue of guardianship of a promising young athlete was seen as secondary to his ability to play rugby by his school. When the aunt and uncle (and legal guardians) of a young Takapuna Grammar rugby star expressed concern that he was prioritising rugby to the point that it was having a detrimental impact upon his education, the school arranged to have the boy live with a staff member. The Ministry of Education delivered a sharp rebuke to the school, instructing the board to cease the practice of housing students with staff immediately.
While students in the "firsts" have long been treated like royalty by many schools, the more recent moves by schools to aggressively prioritise elite secondary school rugby over ethics and education surely indicate that the situation is getting out of hand. Which is a shame, given the incredibly positive influence that sport can have upon the lives of young people and their families.
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Legendary former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry recently told the Herald that he'd like to see schools focus on getting more students involved in sport. "I think secondary schools put too much emphasis on the top teams rather than getting as many kids as possible being active," he said. I couldn't agree more.
As a youngster, I was lucky enough to play soccer, volleyball, tennis, cricket and water polo. I was useless at tennis, middling at volleyball, and eventually quite good at cricket, soccer and water polo. Regardless of my level of talent (or the lack thereof), however, I always felt encouraged to get involved and give it a go.
Sport taught me a number of important lessons. Perseverance, teamwork, leadership, determination, friendship, ambition, sports[wo]manship; they're all there on the sports field. The various sports teams I played in kept me fit, challenged and (for the most part) out of trouble. That I was willing to get out of bed in the middle of the icy, rainy Rotorua winter for an 8am start on a muddy, smelly soccer field (the soccer ground in Rotorua is next to the wastewater plant) demonstrates how much I loved my sport. I was lucky that at my good old state schools, we were all encouraged to join a team, no matter how talented or hopeless we were.
I think we need a reset when it comes to kids and sport. While top teams should absolutely be given the opportunity to hone their skills and emerge victorious, the vast majority of students are not in the first XV or the first XIs. The benefits that sport could offer to those kids who aren't going to grow up to be superstars are significant. Being active doesn't just improve physical health, it's also a major protective factor for mental health. And with soaring mental illness and suicide statistics in our current Kiwi teen cohort, we need to do everything we can to help kids stay mentally well.
Whether it's rugby, soccer, yoga, windsurfing, gymnastics, hip-hop or archery, getting as many kids as possible involved in active pursuits should be a priority for all schools. If some of the focus was shifted away from importing kids from other schools to bolster the chances of a top team and redirected towards finding the right activity for each kid, the benefits to the health and wellbeing, camaraderie, and culture in the student body would be immense.
Let's listen to Sir Ted. Kids of every age, stage and level of ability should be welcome and supported on the sports field (pitch, pool, dance studio or wherever else active pursuits take place). Let's put the fun back into games.