I have been musing during the past weeks about two issues which have been out in the public domain for discussion and debate.

The first is about how old that young children should be before they are exposed to the rigours of competitive sport, while the second is the thorny issue of concussion.

Like most baby boomers growing up in New Zealand during the 1950's and 60's, I was exposed to physical education and sport in schools from an early age and began playing rugby competitively from about the age of 7-8 years in the five stone weight group, where even full contact tackling was allowed.

At school, we had two or three PE lessons per week where we learnt to run, throw, catch, kick or hit balls, as well as roll on mats and jump box horses.


All kids in the class were expected do these things – notes from home excusing little Jimmy or Jenny from physical activities were unheard of.

The year was divided into four week blocks devoted to a particular set of skills.

A unit on Small Ball Skills, such as throwing and catching tennis balls, was followed by Large Ball Skills involving balls similar in size to netballs, then Hitting or Striking Skills with cricket bats and hockey sticks.

Finally, Gymnastics, where forward and backward rolls were perfected on mats in the gym or out on the hard netball court.

The balance beam and box horse proved a bit more difficult to master, especially for the boys.

Most kids also ended up playing in school rugby, netball or cricket teams and the really keen ones joined club teams for weekly training practices and weekend play.

We must have been pretty competitive, because I can remember waiting uptown on a Saturday night to get the Christchurch Star sports paper which printed all the day's rugby results, so we could see how our competitors fared in their games.

The better players were selected for the North Canterbury representative teams, and some even made it into the Canterbury teams which were on offer from about the age of thirteen or so.


Contrast that to what children of today are offered.

A myriad of choices are out there for those who choose to take up sport.

I say "choose" because sadly today, schools don't generally teach all the skills that we tried so hard to master.

A look at the NZ Curriculum in Health & Physical Education shows it is divided up into fifteen strands at each two-year level, only one of which relates to learning to move about and possibly throw, catch, kick or hit things.

Schools no longer appear to actively teach physical skills in a structured way – instead, if kids are lucky they may get to play a game in class once a week.

But there are lots of other physical activities out there for kids to try nowadays.


Apart from the mainstream ones already mentioned, I come across kids who ride BMX or motor bikes, do boxing, wrestle or take martial arts, or row Waka Ama and canoes.

Some of these activities can lead to children receiving injuries, even concussion.

The question being asked in the media was, should children as young as primary age be playing serious representative contact sport?

I know I certainly was and without a mouthguard either, but I don't remember ever being concussed or seeing team mates in that situation, for that matter.

Concussion is of major concern of parents these days and NZ Rugby takes the matter very seriously.

Before each rugby season begins all coaches and referees must attend a Rugby Smart course, designed to educate them on what to look for and how to deal with player concussion, as well as other safety measures.


In addition, we now have the Blue Card initiative where a referee can use a blue card to signal a player has possibly been concussed and must be taken off the field.

A formal process is then enacted where the player must stand down from any training for a rest period of at least three weeks, and not return to training until getting a medical clearance from his doctor.

Thereafter, there is a gradual return-to-play process which has to be followed by the player until he has finally been cleared by the doctor.

Why are there so many concussions in matches these days?

There are probably too many reasons to expand on here, but one or two readily come to mind.

For a start, the game is faster and more physical than it was fifty or sixty years ago.


There are far more collisions and generally with far more force than in those days.

The types of tackles are different, with tacklers being trained to launch aggressively into tackles, leading with the shoulder while still using the arms.

Tackles around the legs are almost extinct, with the emphasis now on tackling higher on the body in order to knock the ball-carrier over, so that other players can go for the ball immediately after the tackle.

Arriving players attempting to move opponents from the tackle area or subsequent rucks do so aggressively, whereas the good old-fashioned pack rucking the ball back with their feet used far less force (and seldom led to injuries, let alone concussion).

The types of training needed to prepare for these collisions may be too advanced for young players these days.

Their bodies are still developing and maturing and may not really be ready for full contact sport.


But for some schools, competitive results matter – their reputation and future roll growth is important.

The first XV rugby competition is televised live in many instances and some school netball teams compete against adult teams.

One wonders where it will all end.