Firstly, to all the 2019 Waikato coaches, administrators, parents and sideline supporters, thank you for your service and thank you for your support. You make sport happen.

Sport Waikato’s role alongside our many outstanding sporting codes in the mighty Waikato region is to assist you to make sport happen and to do this in ways that are relevant, meaningful and positive for our communities, especially young people.
 
As we transition from winter to summer sport (whatever that looks like in 2019), let’s take a moment to talk about our kids and the role we as adult influencers of youth sport play in shaping our kids’ sporting experiences.
 
While many of the Waikato region’s children and young people do play competitive sport and thoroughly enjoy it, it is important to recognise that there are also many who drop out of the game because of negative experiences – some of which we can directly control.
 
The pressure to perform, over analysis post competition and berating on the dreaded PPGA (Parent Post Game Analysis) car ride home about what kids should have done, ‘win at all cost’ attitudes, extended periods of ‘warming’ the bench for young players, and coaching environments that are solely focused on competition outcome rather than the development of the child are just some of the issues.
 
And, of course these all come at the expense of what we know our children and young people really want from sport (you only have to ask them) – having fun, a good comp, opportunities to play with friends and learning new skills.
 
Simply put, if their sporting experiences aren’t providing what our children and young people really value – THEY WILL GIVE UP DOWN THE TRACK. I’m not getting carried away using “CAPS” here. I am simply emphasising reality. The statistics linked to a decline in sport participation among children and youth are real and the downward trend consistent.
 
What this indicates is that current models of delivery and the approach required of adult influencers supporting children and youth wanting to play in 2019 need to be different than that of the past. Without a doubt, what we’re seeing out there are coaches, parents, supporters and sport leaders who want to provide the best opportunities for children and young people – their intentions are good – but the delivery sometimes misses the mark as we continue to look at sport through an adult lens, instead of stopping to think about what kids really want and value out of their participation.
 
Fortunately for us though, the solution to keeping children and young people involved and interested in sport is much easier than we might think.
 
You may have seen that Sport NZ have recently announced that five of the country’s top sports codes – rugby, hockey, netball, cricket and football - have joined together with Sport NZ to take a stand to improve youth experiences in sport.
 
Sport NZ and these five sporting organisations have committed to ensuring quality of experience remains at the centre of sport, irrespective of the level of competition. They’re leading attitude and behaviour change among sport leaders, coaches, administrators, parents and caregivers involved in youth sport, while also working alongside sports to enhance player development opportunities through changes in competition structures. And a focus on delaying talent identification, supporting young people to play multiple sports and raising awareness of the risks of overtraining and overloading youth are high on their agenda.

Sport Waikato 100% agrees with and applauds this stance. In various aspects of our work, including the Good Sports programme, we have begun to support key adult influencers in youth sport (e.g. coaches, administrators, teachers, parents and supporters) to shift their thinking from the ‘need’ to focus solely on competition, selecting rep teams, winning championships and a mindset where only the best, most talented kids matter, to creating climates that ensure children have the best chance of having positive sporting experiences, and ultimately growing a lifelong love of sport. The Waikato Secondary Schools Sports Association (WSSSA) are working with codes to improve the quality of sporting competitions in the secondary school space.
 
We firmly believe that at all ages and stages, sport needs to be fun. We want sport to offer young people balanced competition so they can understand what it means to win graciously, to try hard and be proud of themselves, even in defeat.
 
We believe that when our young people are inspired to learn from their game, connect with their friends and encouraged to make new ones, and empowered to become decision makers both in and out of sport, everybody wins.

We also believe that children and youth should be encouraged to create balance in sport participation. While early specialisation in sport carries risks of injury from overuse and repetition, opportunities to play different sports and use different sets of muscle groups benefit children and young people both physically and mentally.
 
As the ‘controllers’ of youth sport – it is our job to create environments that encourage learning and development through fun, play and variety that include everybody - regardless of ability - to cement a life-long love of participating in sport and active recreation.
 
I am certainly no philosopher or innovationist. I’m a passionate Waikato sport and recreation administrator and former goal kicker. But as I write this column, the sentiments of Henry Ford are resonating with me. To paraphrase - “If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’ve been getting.”
 
The writing is on the wall; there’s no doubt that we need to shake things up. We need to challenge the status quo and traditional methods and models of sport that may have worked in the past, but are now in many ways letting our region’s children and young people down. While it is certainly not all bad for our kids out there - we have some amazing development focused coaches, parents and sport leaders – we do know that we could collectively be so much better, and we have some work to do.
 
In our own region, with passionate and committed sporting influencers, excellent sporting codes and in partnership with Sport Waikato, we not only have an opportunity, but an obligation to collectively unpack how we do something different to get a different result; how we make change to improve the sporting experiences of our region’s youth to keep them in the game.
 
Matthew Cooper
CEO, Sport Waikato

OPINION: It’s time to ‘shake up’ our approach to youth sport in the Waikato

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