Dealing with the sports-shy

Ian Munro
Ian Munro
Many youngsters are lapping up the return to freedom and, in particular, the return of sport. But there’ll be some who won’t seem the slightest bit interested, writes parenting columnist Ian Munro.

The reasons for reluctant participation in sport can be many and varied and are best addressed early. The longer it’s left, the more difficult it can become as they fall further and further behind peers in gaining skills and expertise.

Physical activity in general and sport in particular provide many opportunities to build a rounded person. They can improve both physical and mental or emotional wellbeing; assist with the development of motor skills and co-ordination; allow the positive release of surplus energy; provide opportunities for teamwork and co-operation, including the need to communicate, follow a plan of action, be reliable and show commitment; provide leadership opportunities; and foster self-confidence, self-reliance and social skills.

However, sport is often seen as a test of a person’s adequacy and standing and therefore avoidance can remove the fear of not measuring up in their peer environment. Unfortunately, in avoiding one anxiety a child can be hit from the other direction by a sense that they’re a disappointment to their parents.

If we get frustrated with them that only makes matters worse. Youngsters can feel trapped at this point with nowhere to go. This is the time to back off and see if we can get to the bottom of the problem with some sympathetic questioning. If they already feel that they’re letting us down, we’ll need to go particularly gently.

The reasons could include a fear of injury, an unpleasant experience such as frequently being picked last, a lack of a particular skill or something like poor hand-eye co-ordination that has led to teasing or humiliation, discomfort with some strongly competitive peers, lack of confidence or fear of making a fool of themselves.

We can then either help them address the issue by playing and practising with them, while avoiding pressuring them or adding further to any sense of humiliation, lack of confidence or failure. If it’s not something we can do, then it’s a case of finding someone who can. It’s a bit like teaching driving — if our patience is thin, someone else can probably achieve the desired outcome in a more positive and less destructive way.

Or maybe there are other sports or activities that better suit their nature or their skills and abilities. It mightn’t be hockey, but instead dance. It mightn’t be rugby, but instead chess.

Make participation rather than statistics the measure of their success. Help them realise that a loss or a missed opportunity or a rather silly play isn’t the end of the world. There’s always another opportunity — and even the top sportspeople have their off days.

 - Ian Munro

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