No shame in emphasising fun

There is a three-word phrase regularly rolled out by opponents of anything designed to emphasise the fun of playing sport.

''PC gone mad'' is a tired label uttered, usually, by people living vicariously through their children and losing sight of the true value of chasing a ball around a field or court.

Those bemoaning so-called political correctness in sport were quick to respond at the weekend when the North Harbour rugby union announced it was scrapping its junior representative campaign in favour of a programme designed to promote participation over high-end performance.

Harbour boss David Gibson, who knows a thing or two about elite sport, having played halfback for the Highlanders, Blues and New Zealand Maori, said the decision was made after a year of investigation into how to ''maximise engagement and grow participation through quality experiences''.

That might sound like a collection of meaningless buzzwords but the message is clear: the best way to boost numbers in a sport is not to focus on its elite end but to adopt an inclusive approach that targets enjoyment.

Predictably, some of the reaction - not all, a pleasing sign attitudes are broadening - to Harbour's move was heated, especially on social media.

There seemed to be plenty of former junior stars falling in behind the message from New Zealand Herald columnist Mike Hosking, who referred to something he coined the ''hold hands, Kumbaya'' approach to sport and, rather ominously, predicted North Harbour would ''live to regret'' its decision.

Tellingly, Gibson himself said the union had already heard from several huffy parents indicating they would be taking their future All Blacks to another union. What was that about people living vicariously through their children?

This is actually not an earth-shattering development in junior sport.

Netball New Zealand last year decided to replace its own year 7 and year 8 programmes with a player development focus, arguing it was vital to encourage a broader talent pool.

Sport NZ has also undertaken extensive studies into how early specialisation in sport - an example being the pressure on promising young rugby players to cast aside other activities - can do more harm than good to young athletes.

Still, it feels like this is a big moment in New Zealand sport. Rugby - our national game, and for so long the bastion of masculinity and an unashamed obsession with winning - is starting to think differently about how to keep young boys, and now young girls, in the sport.

There was a time when rugby could be excused for lapsing into complacency. New Zealand's unrivalled ''factory'', with a conveyor belt from school to club to province to the hallowed black jersey, worked exceptionally well, and rugby's pre-eminence in the sporting landscape allowed officials the luxury of ignoring any complaints about youngsters who fell by the wayside.

Times have changed. Rugby, like many organised sports, must grapple with a drop in playing numbers and the challenge of staying relevant in a modern world full of other recreational options.

North Harbour's move should be welcomed warmly by all those who want to see rugby survive and thrive.

Research has consistently shown the No 1 reason children play a sport is to have fun, not to beat another team by 100 points or get a fancy representative tracksuit or a trip to a tournament in Nelson. Similar studies show developing athletes are better served by enjoying multiple sports, not focusing on one at a tender age.

Elite sport is about winning - that's certainly what we demand of the All Blacks, and rightly so - but the driver of engagement in junior and amateur sport has to be enjoyment.

Children will stay in rugby longer if they enjoy it. Elite stars will still have plenty of time to emerge through the First XV pathway, and disgruntled parents will eventually get over themselves.


Your theory that we can encourage mass participation, or have a rep team, but not both, is absurd.

The idea that everyone should just be participants, or everybody should strive to be a rep, is simplistic beyond belief.

It's patently obvious to any thinking person that we can and should cater to all children - those who just enjoy participating, and those who have are passionate, talented, and want to strive for excellence.

Fun or competing comes down to a child's fitness levels. A child who gets winded easily is not going to be concerned about being on the field every minute of the game.

Neither should 'Sport' be a compulsory subject in schools. Fitness, yes. The days of the oval ball being a metaphor for Life are long gone.