When my daughter was a toddler, we went to swimming classes at the local pool. I wanted her to enjoy and be safe around water. The classes were fun and engaging and we met many new friends.
When she was at primary school we continued to go to swimming lessons, but the emphasis had changed. The fun was replaced by lap upon lap of freestyle in what was now termed a squad. There were competitions every Saturday and early training on freezing mornings. Thankfully, she lost interest quickly.
Fast forward to the teenage years, and we became immersed in the worlds of soccer and tennis. The stakes were now undeniably different. Many of the parents were emotionally invested in the results of matches. Their children often looked stressed and unhappy, embarrassed by the shouting of their parents. The atmosphere was not one of effort and engagement and the great outdoors, but of competitiveness and disappointment and remonstration.
Research tells us that finding something early in life that we are good at and that we enjoy doing for its own sake (rather than to please others) leads to positive outcomes in later life. This is commonly referred to as finding one’s “spark”, and a natural skill or talent for sport is one such avenue of engagement. It is a great way for young people to build resilience and competence, engage in physical activity, make new friends and develop ties with the broader community.
The adolescent brain is particularly receptive to learning new skills and absorbing new information. We need to provide a rich and diverse array of positive activities that push them beyond their comfort level, but not so far that success is unachievable. This is the “sweet spot” that helps them grow and feel accomplished.
So why have we made sport for kids so competitive and joyless?
A recent research review found that lack of enjoyment was one of five factors associated with teenage dropout from organised sport, along with perceptions of competence, social pressures, competing priorities and injuries. Decreased enjoyment in sport has been linked to high amounts of parental pressure, criticism and low parental support.
There’s no problem with the message that if you want to be good at something, then dedication and hard work is paramount. But we need to be careful when our children’s engagement in sport becomes more about us than them. This is especially the case when teenagers are already feeling academic pressures and would much prefer to blow off some steam by skating to the shops or riding a bike around the streets with their mates, rather than the structure of organised sports.
Kids want to hear that they were noticed for doing their best. We need to be our children’s champions, to offer guidance and support, to remind them that there will be other chances on other days. Building a life long love of the outdoors, team activities and fitness should be the end goal, not who wins on the day.
The Prince Boofhead Syndrome, By Dr-Michael Carr-Gregg & Elly Robinson. Penguin Random House Australia, $22.99.