Putting the fun back into sport

When did junior sport become about fear and not fun?

The fear of losing. The fear of disappointment. The fear of missing out on representative selection. The fear of not getting the fancy new hoodies worn by the opposing team. The fear of our children not being ruthless on the sports field or court and instead (gasp) treating their athletic pursuits as merely part of their lives and not an obsession.

All the evidence points to the need for a mature, healthy approach to sport at junior levels - that it should be encouraged and supported, but that the over-riding aims behind it must be for youngsters to have fun and be physically active, not for them to focus on winning and representative glory, because the vast majority of those youngsters are indeed playing sport primarily to have fun.

It feels like we lost that ideal somewhere along the way. The toxicity of junior sport - abusive parents on the sideline, referees getting clobbered, and disillusioned young athletes leaving sport in droves because they are fed up for myriad reasons - made more noise than the goodness.

That is why we should applaud the shake-up for youth sport revealed last week.

Led by Sport New Zealand with support from major codes rugby, netball, cricket, football and hockey, covering 600,000 children, the plan is to emphasise fun and development, and address the issues that are turning young people off sport.

It is, as it stands, a reasonably vague plan. Details of how exactly it will play out are scarce. But its aspirational spirit is clear, and must be embraced by anyone with an interest in junior sport.

Burnout in sport is becoming too common, and the high rate of dropout - particularly in the 15-17 years bracket - must not be dismissed as a statistical blip.

For every youngster thriving in organised sport, there are several who have had a gutsful, and it is time to address that.

Sport is not just about the elite. That is such a basic premise, yet many seem to struggle to grasp it. Nor do they appreciate the reality that if more children are quitting sport, fewer are going to make the elite ranks anyway.

The plan to put a stop to over-training, over-specialisation and over-emphasis on winning in junior sport makes a lot of sense.

Training too hard is now a genuine problem, proof of which is in the soaring number of ACC claims and the sight of teenagers missing large swathes of the season with various ailments.

New Zealand Cricket boss David White summed it up nicely when he said over-specialisation (think grumpy coaches telling children to focus on just one sport in the misguided belief that will serve them better) ''reflects an adult mindset''.

Children become more rounded humans - and sportspeople - if they participate in as many activities as possible.

An over-emphasis on winning has perhaps been the single biggest blight on the junior sporting landscape in recent years. This manifests itself not in poor sportsmanship from youngsters, but in immature and unpleasant behaviour on the sidelines from adults living vicariously through them.

And it needs to stop. Nobody is saying winning is not important. Nobody is saying talented, driven young sportspeople should not get an opportunity to make the best of themselves. This is not a ''snowflake generation''.

What will happen to New Zealand sport if these changes are formalised? Maybe great things. Veteran sportswriter Trevor McKewen in Spinoff pointed to a New York Times feature that aimed to highlight the best youth sporting system in the world.

All signs pointed to Norway, which had 93% of children playing organised sport, low costs, no travelling competitive teams until the teenage years, and a focus on participation until children turned 13. No poaching, no over-training - and elite athletes were still emerging. Norway was a powerhouse in multiple codes.

What an example to follow.

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