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More to kids’ sport than just dog-eats-dog competition

Simon Hollingsworth
ASC CEO Simon Hollingsworth.

23 Feb 2015

Australian Sports Commission CEO Simon Hollingsworth writes for The Weekend Australian that participation offers substantial health and social benefits for children and the nation.

EVERY Saturday morning, in a scene repeated around the country, I drive my seven-year-old daughter to her chosen sport of the moment, gymnastics, and witness one of the great benefits of children’s sport.

What greets me on entry to the large, nondescript tin shed is a wave of energy generated by hundreds of children throwing themselves into the joys of sport.

Like me, most parents are clutching a coffee, watching the clock.

Sitting there watching, I often notice a small gang of kids nearby practising on a plastic apparatus that mimics a pommel horse.

What captures my attention is their interaction as they laugh, muck around and teach each other the finer points of technique while coaches patiently provide guidance.

Odds are none of them will become Olympic champions. But it is obvious they are enjoying what they are doing and learning much more than just the difficult routines of a gymnast.

With not a scorecard or judge in sight, it’s clear that children’s sport is about a lot more than just competition.

On these pages, with one eye on the gymnastics, I read the article titled “Hard for kids to become good sports when winning and losing are removed from the game” (The Weekend Australian, February 14) and its argument that competition in children’s sport is being actively de-emphasised to the detriment of our kids’ development and future Australian sporting success.

The Australian Sports Commission challenges this claim. In fact, we think that efforts by sports to expand participation opportunities will see more kids playing and enjoying sport, and it will help Australian sports grow and thrive.

Any business in any sector knows that the best way to understand what potential consumers want is to ask them: find out what motivates them and develop a product to meets their needs.

In a significant piece of research to help sports increase participation the ASC did just that. And the results were clear.

Kids start and stay in or opt out of sports for a variety of reasons. But a key motivation is the social and fun aspect of sport.

Some like the skill acquisition and challenge, and some love the competition. Often it’s a mix of these factors.

For many young people, as competition becomes the dominant feature they drift away in large numbers, often not returning.

The dilemma for sports is that they must offer a product that is true to the traditional core of what makes that sport great, but also ensure that it is not limiting greater reach.

The good news is that many sports are responding accordingly and offering different options that are not just about competition.

This means providing more opportunities for children to participate in and enjoy sport and — as the evidence shows — most likely develop a positive view of the benefits of physical activity that will last into adulthood.

Now before the critics bemoan this perceived threat to traditional dog-eats-dog competition, let’s maintain perspective.

Competition in sport is not dead.

To betray the ASC’s own conflict of interest, our Australian Institute of Sport’s Winning Edge strategy is all about investing in elite success.

So we have an active interest in the sustainability of competitive sport.

Competition remains an essential and readily available feature of junior sporting fixtures around the country.

Well-defined and supported talent development pathways will continue to provide opportunities relevant to ability.

As for my point that sport is more than just competition, the benefits to sporting organisations of more kids enjoying and engaging in sport should be self-evident.

Participation is a source of revenue and commercial opportunity for sports. While it may cause some angst to sporting traditionalists, at a grassroots level sport must evolve to thrive.

What worked a generation ago will not work today.

Competition among children’s recreational pursuits is intense and includes electronic games, the internet, social media and that old foe, television.

Sports must respond.

Gaining more participants means more opportunities and investment in the sport, greater depth of competition and more fans watching better quality sport.

The ASC has undertaken considerable research that confirms this virtuous circle of involving participant, fan and consumer.

There is another important consequence of having more kids in sport: it will deliver significant health and social benefits to Australia.

It’s indisputable that having more kids involved in sport is a good thing.

The benefits of active lifestyles are well known as a key mitigating factor against health risks.

And returning to my weekly gymnastics adventure, it is clear the social skills that children develop through sport are not only a contrast to the potential isolation of electronic devices but — as our research also shows — they make kids want to keep doing sport.

This piece originally appeared in The Weekend Australian on February 21

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