Standing at the sidelines cheering kids on in sports has got to be a hallmark moment in Kiwi parenting. But have we as parents, guardians and coaches let our own definitions of sporting success take away the fun of participation for our children? Has sport for our kids become all work and no play?

What gets measured matters, and if we are only measuring winning and losing and the final scoreboard, and failing to reinforce that a child’s confidence, growth, development and character is equally if not more important in sport, then what lasting messages will kids carry
with them as they grow into teens and adults?

If your child spends more time sitting at the sidelines waiting to be subbed in because they’re “not good enough” this message can impact their confidence, not only in sport, but in other participatory group activities.

Conversely, if your kid is “good” at sport, they fare no better when they’re constantly told to “work” at their goal shooting, “work” at their footwork, “work” at their sport and to be the best. We may have forgotten to encourage our children to simply go outside and play. If your child just wants to enjoy a game with their buddies, the messages we’re sending them may be conflicting, detrimental and ultimately stymie a passion in sports for life.

Why we need to act

Despite our nation’s ever-increasing passion for sport in New Zealand, even in just the last 10 years the number of children aged 7-13 participating in sport in our schools and communities has taken a dramatic downward turn, a trend echoed globally.

So while dad having a go at a ref for making the “wrong call” might be dismissed as being “part of the game”… or parents getting kids to focus on just the one sport they’re “good” at and dropping everything else… or the coach yelling “You’re not here to have fun, you’re here to work”… or simply that a child’s team or personal success is only measured in terms of winning or losing, when all this is happening despite our best intentions we’re creating a climate of performance rather than one of non-linear growth, participation and holistic development.

The team at Good Sports, a group of New Zealand’s sporting and coaching experts, academics and sports psychologists, instead invite parents to embark on a cultural shift when it comes to their kids and sport, and create an environment where competitiveness can coexist with fun.

Fun doesn’t mean larking around. It’s a complex array of components such as of rising to challenges, learning and acing new skills, receiving positive feedback from coaches and parents, overcoming errors, spending time with friends and making new ones, seeing incremental improvements, and where winning is just another triumph along the spectrum of fun. Fun is playing sport not working at it.

And if a child is not having fun in sport, then asking them to stick with it will prove difficult.

There is plenty of evidence that children who enjoy positive sporting experiences succeed in a myriad of different ways throughout their entire lifetime, and that’s one goal worth kicking for!

Our 5 top tips to foster a life-long love of sport in our kids

Making the shift to meet your child’s holistic needs in sport is actually simple. Start with these 5 top tips to shift behaviour from a Climate of Performance to a Climate of Development:

1. Winning & Losing vs. Effort and Improvement
Take focus off winning or losing as the measure of success and instead look at the whole team’s improvement. Don’t rehash mistakes, rather view mistakes as being valuable for a child’s growth. Avoid elevating the ability of one player over another, instead celebrating all the players’ efforts.

2. Only the Best Matter v. Everyone Matters
Don’t play favourites or support just the top athletes, instead include and support every player in the group. Discourage gossip and backstabbing, and foster an environment of looking out for each other, friendship and caring.

3. Strict Adult Control vs. Kids Having Control
Stop being parents and coaches controlling all the decision-making, and invite kids to take over some of the decisions that they’re capable of making. Let children learn at their own pace from mistakes and give them time to help each other to learn from each other’s mistakes. Listen to what kids want and acknowledge new ideas and endeavour to implement as many as are possible.

4. Performance Training vs. Learning Through Play
Limit, swap out or eliminate repetitive drills and instructive training by modifying practices and games where possible. Don’t just instruct, create an environment where kids discover what works and what doesn’t with your guidance along the way. Don’t operate a punishment and reward programme, instead celebrate smart questions from your kids.

5. Early Specialisation vs. Late Specialisation
Avoid the all year round one-sport specialisation when your children are young and instead get them playing lots of different sports and activities to see which one, two or more make them happiest. Don’t pressure your kids into choosing just one sport, instead let them decide later. And ensure your kids are getting a good balance of sport alongside their school commitments and friendships.

If you make this cultural shift you’ll see immediate and long term improvements in your child’s happiness and well being, and may even foster a life long love of sport. Whether your child’s goal is to have fun, to play to the best of their ability, or to one day represent New Zealand in elite sport, loving their sport is key.

Good Sports Workshops

We run free community workshops with one of our trained Good Sports Developers for your team, club or school. To book a free workshop or to find out more information click here.