Renowned Northland athletics coach Ian Babe has made his stance on Sport New Zealand's mandate to increase enjoyment in youth sport, calling for more upskilling in coaching.
In an effort to address falling youth sport numbers, Sport NZ chief executive Peter Miskimmin announced in September last year that five of the country's largest-participation sports would be, "...pushing back against early specialisation, over-emphasis on winning and other factors driving young New Zealanders away from sport".
New Zealand Cricket, NZ Football, Hockey NZ, Netball NZ and New Zealand Rugby all signed a statement of intent to make major changes to the way kids play sport so it is more inclusive and not just focused on the winners.
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The proposed measures included changing the competitive mindset in adults, reviewing national and regional representative tournaments and looking at how talent is identified with teenagers.
Much of this debate originated from North Harbour Rugby Union's decision to axe their junior representative programme in February last year. The decision was reinforced when the long-standing under-13 Roller Mills rugby tournament was scrapped in November last year.
Babe, well-known for coaching former Olympic Games medallist and ITU World champion Sam Warriner, said he strongly believed early specialisation negatively impacted development in young sportspeople.
While he acknowledged there was some value in representative programmes, Babe said any move to promote enjoyment in youth sport had to be paired with quality programmes delivered by skilled coaches.
"It depends on the quality of the programmes [the different codes] are going to replace [representative teams] with and it depends on the expertise of the people presenting it and it's usually parents who are dragged in because there is no one else," the 82-year-old said.
"We've just got to upskill so that the coaches know enough to be able to give the right work at their level."
Babe, a former Athletics NZ president, currently coached prodigious 14-year-old Whangārei runner, Bella Earl, using a number of training techniques, including water-based strength building exercises.
Babe's training methods were seemingly vindicated when Earl went on to win all four of her big races in 2019, including an under-16 New Zealand Road Race Championships title, a North Island secondary schools junior girls' 1500m title, and a four-kilometre under-16 national cross country win.
Babe emphasised the need for schools to be consulted and given the resources necessary to cater to children at different levels of development.
"If you can lift the quality of physical education and sport within the education system, you're going to get a multi-level development."
He also encouraged sports such as athletics to renew efforts to keep children in their respective codes, so athletes who developed late would still find a pathway in the sport.
Babe noted his former running prodigy Michelle Prowse, who went on to compete on the world stage and win a scholarship to the United States, was a perfect example of how athletes could develop later in life.
"Michelle was an average runner early on, but I could see that she was intelligent and she wanted to do well, she had that focus."
While he was in favour of any move promoting enjoyment in sport, Babe urged New Zealand's sporting officials to consider the necessity of quality coaches in achieving their goals.
"You've got to ask yourself, what is the real meaning of what they are trying to do because sometimes general statements about non-specialisation, it's easy to sit there and just say that. A lot of it comes back to coaching."