Take a moment and think back to when you were a child playing sport. What did you enjoy about playing sport back then? It might have been that you won all your games, it might have been that you were playing with your friends, it could have been that you learned how to kick a spiral punt, or maybe it was the half time oranges. The key thing is that what you enjoyed about sport as a child was probably unique to you and this hasn’t changed – each child is different. So, what makes a child have a positive sporting experience and ultimately fall in love with sport?

It’s a question that many of us will have different views on when it comes to answering, but what does the research say? When combing what we’ve seen in sport with our study of the research, there are 5 identified children’s needs that have been shown to most affect the quality of their experience in youth sports. In the same way a healthy spine maintains the body, the health of these five needs shapes a child’s motivation, learning, enjoyment and quality of play – or in other terms, their love of sport.

  1. Inspiration – No one wants to feel like they aren’t good enough and can’t do it. This can kill spirits and make a child lose interest. At the same time, activities and exercises that are too easy can quickly become boring. Children need challenges that aren’t too easy or too hard and the feeling that with effort, good things will come.
  2. Connection – It is very important that children feel a sense of belonging to the group both on and off the court/field. This means that they feel liked by the coach, have friends on the team and have a role to play in the game. Crucially, children need to feel loved and supported by their parents (regardless of the result).
  3. Empowerment – Who likes being told what to do all the time? When children feel trusted and their feelings and ideas are valued, they are more likely to feel self-reliant and self-directed.
  4. Play – Children need to play games! Games are best when they challenge movement, teamwork and imagination in new and exciting ways. Research tells us that play does more than – just giving children a chance to run around (even though that is important). Play is key to a deeper learning of the sport, injury prevention and long-term development.
  5. Variety – Children need a chance to try out a few different sports before deciding which one to focus on. Research shows that year-round training, in a single sport to the exclusion of others, can make children susceptible to overuse injury, burnout and disaffection with that sport.

As an adult in a child’s life, your behaviour matters. Through your daily actions, you can do things that support and/or undermine how a child experiences these needs. We’ve found that the attitudes and behaviours of adults in children’s sports tend to cluster into two patterns that we call (1) a Climate of Development and (2) a Climate of Performance. We use the term climates because we’re talking about the environment that surrounds a child.

  • Climate of Development – This environment is most likely to support children’s needs and creates engagement, interest and learning, but ultimately support’s children to develop a love of sport. Focusing on effort and improvement encourages children to strive to play hard and focus on developing to please themselves as oppose to others. It also promotes children to develop resilience by making mistakes as something to learn from.
  • Climate of Performance – Being within this environment you work against what children need and increase the chances of losing interest, burnout and overuse injury. Correcting every mistake has a way of making children feel like they aren’t good enough. While adults who focus on performance tend to focus on the ‘best’ at the exclusion of others.

The Good Sports Spine

We have created a tool that will help you as an adult take a step back and reflect on the bigger questions; am I helping my child have a positive sporting experience and am I helping children fall in love with sport? The Good Sports Spine looks to help you answer these questions. The Good Sports Spine is a great tool for reflecting on what kind of environment you’re promoting in children’s sports.

Think of the Good Sports Spine as a map and try to locate yourself. The two different Climates are on opposites of a continuum. Do you fall more on the side of Climate of Performance or Climate of Development? Maybe a little of both? We find that sometimes behaviour is situational. Maybe things are positive during training but change when the game starts or the quality of play turns sour? Most people fall somewhere in the middle between the two Climates as it is unrealistic for adult behaviour to be neatly categorised as 100% one or the other, all the time. However, keeping a child’s needs and the overall experience they are having at top of mind will help you make the decisions for children to fall in love with sport just as you may do.

You may look at the Good Sports Spine and say hey, this is just common sense, I’m already doing this – Great! The key now is to carry on and not change your thinking as your child progresses. For others, the Good Sports Spine may be an “eye opener” that helps see things from a different perspective. And this is great as well! At the end of the day the thing that matters in kid’s sport more than anything is the child, and this mindset will help your child fall in love with sport.