Tackling the dropping numbers in youth sport must start with a change in parents' attitudes, according to leaders of several of the country's top sporting codes.

New Zealand Rugby, NZ Cricket, Netball NZ, NZ Football and Hockey NZ have signed a statement of intent to make major changes to the way kids play sport, vowing to make it less competitive, more inclusive and more fun in an attempt to combat falling youth participation in sport.

The campaign will look at changing the culture around youth sport starting with education and changing the culture at leadership levels and parents, as well as reviewing national and regional representative tournaments and looking at how talent is identified with teenagers.

Sport NZ boss Peter Miskimmin says change must start with how parents view youth sport.


"This is actually a campaign about parents and about parents rethinking youth sport," Miskimmin told Radio Sport Breakfast. "Because what we're seeing and what we're hearing from young people is they're not enjoying the experience so much.

"In the surveys we've done with them, what they're saying is they want to have fun and they want to play with their mates.

"There's a sense of too much or over-emphasis on winning – we're not saying winning is not important, just the over-emphasis through adult expectations – and early specialisation (being forced to play one sport and encouraged to) is all a bit of a turn off and kids are walking away from sport.

"And for us that's a real issue given all the value that comes associated with sport for life."

Sport NZ chief executive Peter Miskimmin. Photo / Photosport
Sport NZ chief executive Peter Miskimmin. Photo / Photosport

Hockey NZ chairman Mike Bignell echoed that sentiment, saying parents have a big part to play in making sport a more attractive environment for children.

"We shouldn't look at kids' sport through adult eyes," Bignall told Newstalk ZB. "I think a big part of that is [with] parents.

"We want them to be coaches, we want them to be umpires, we want them to be volunteers. We want to encourage the kids, though, through that network to be the best they can be in terms of improving their skills and their development.

"If it comes at a win at all cost outcome, that is not going to be the right outcome, both for the coaches and also the parents on the sideline. So parents have got a big chunk to play in this."


'Kids are speaking with their feet'

An independent review into New Zealand secondary schools rugby by NZ Rugby earlier this year found that the number of boys playing rugby in secondary schools is trending downwards at an "alarming rate".

While participation among girls has seen growth, the number of boys' and girls' school teams in Auckland dropped 20 per cent from 225 to 181 since 2013.

NZ Rugby chief rugby officer Nigel Cass says the drop in youth participation is also happening in other sports and this latest campaign is an attempt to help make sport work better for children.

"The kids are speaking with their feet," Cass told Newstalk ZB. "They're leaving not only rugby but other sports because it's not working for them. And this is about saying 'what are the things that kids love about sport', and they love being with their mates. Don't get me wrong, they love winning, they love getting better at the sport, [but] they [also] love having enough players in a team so that they can play.

"We've got a great first XV programme which is bringing through the top rugby athletes in the world. We don't want to do anything to jeopardise that. But underneath that at many schools, they are really struggling to put kids on a rugby field. So we've got to say 'how can we do it differently?'."

Parents watch junior grade rugby. Photo / Photosport
Parents watch junior grade rugby. Photo / Photosport

Understanding the evidence

The proposed measures from the sporting bodies has been met with some scepticism, including from double Olympic gold medallist rower Eric Murray who said competitiveness is a part of life, and sport should reflect that.

The leaders of the sporting bodies believe the attempt to make sport a less competitive and specialised environment for children isn't about minimising the importance of competition or winning, but making sure every kid has a quality experience in sport.

"It's time people start to understand the evidence," Sport NZ sport development consultant Alex Chiet told Radio Sport Breakfast. "The evidence suggests that for the majority of athletes that make it to the top, they've followed paths of sampling other sports, being a kid playing winter and summer sports and then sort of narrowing the sports they play and focusing on one later on in their teens – rather than the Tiger Woods story or Serena Williams.

"There's always a few that are going to follow that journey but that's not the majority. The majority of kids actually grow up in a well-rounded development opportunity and every kid develops at different rates. You can't see future talent when kids are eight or 12. Or even 15, it's really hard to say that child is going to be the next Roger Federer or whoever it may be. You can't see future potential, you've got to keep them all involved and give everybody a quality experience.

"The evidence has always been there for years. We know that there's better ways to develop talent and offer other opportunities. One of the tipping points I think were the declining participation numbers. So we're starting to see numbers drop in youth sport. So that's a bit of a call to action."

Bignell added: "Sport and competition and winning is all part of the environment that we're in but it can't be at all costs. We want people to have a lifelong enjoyment and passion for sport. That's good for us, that's good for society, and that's good for the individuals."