A question of sport

Sport is great fun and great exercise for kids, but there are some things you need to take into consideration when your child starts participating.

There are unquestionable physical and social benefits in getting our kids involved in sport, including the health rewards of regular activity, the social skills and dynamics they absorb and the opportunity to work together with their peers as a team. However, it’s not always a level playing field as all our kids have different personalities and preferences when it comes to physical activity. We want to make sure that our children are involved in sporting activities that will have positive benefits to their self esteem and confidence, as well as their physical fitness. Fortunately, we are a sporting nation, with enough opportunities for every kid to find a sport that they can not only participate in, but thrive as well.

Transferring the natural wiring and motivation for movement that our kids are born with into a sports setting safely is all about allowing the maximum opportunity for learning and development, while minimising the risk of injuries and accidents. We can do this by making sure they are well supervised and that they are not pushed beyond their capabilities.

Choosing a sport

Helping your child choose a sport should take into account whether they like rough and tumble group activities or something more restrained, with more elements that they are in control of. A child learns what they think they like through watching others, but learns what they really like by participation. Try to ensure you expose a younger child to a range of sports on a non-competitive basis, allowing them to select their chosen sports through experience. A naturally reserved child can benefit from being put outside their comfort zone and into a team environment because the challenge of adapting can help them become more outgoing; however we need to be mindful of their feelings too, making sure that the team you choose is supportive of a quieter child and has a robust ‘equal opportunity’ policy.

One-on-one coaching?

A child that shows talent and enthusiasm for a sport will enjoy being allowed to develop with extra coaching and playing time. As a rule, the younger the child, the more general the training will need to be, focusing on participation and the social aspects of the activity. Our kids soon let us know they are ready for more specific training through their performance and enthusiasm.

Team sports players benefit from more game time over one-on-one coaching in the early days, as success in team sports is as much dependant on the interaction between team mates as the input of individual players. Players of individual sports (such as tennis, golf, swimming) will find one-on-one coaching is of benefit earlier. Allowing a child to spend plenty of time practising on their own will increase ability in any sport, by giving them time to repeat movements and skills, as well as teaching self-motivation.

Increasing the intensity

Fine motor skills, motivation coaching and game tactics can only be effectively learnt when a child’s age and maturity supports it. There is no set rule regarding an appropriate age to increase the complexity of games and training; it is as much about the temperament of a child as their physical ability. The risk of pushing a child too much in a particular sport is that the activity becomes associated more with a fear of not reaching a parent’s expectations, rather than the joy of the game and happiness of participation and success, which can result in a decrease in performance and motivation.


It’s tempting to over-schedule sport for very active kids as a way to entertain them and channel their energy into something positive. But just as we wouldn’t lock our child in their room and demand they play computer games all day to improve their eye/hand coordination, we need to make sure we don’t overload our kids physically. The trick to getting the right balance is allowing for variety – if your child is very active, ensure they do a variety of sports and other activities (and make sure they eat well and drink lots).

Too late to join in?

Although there are a few sports that are more of a struggle to join successfully late in childhood if the aim is success at a high level (such as gymnastics and individual water sports), generally there is no disadvantage with a late start. Don’t worry if your child switches their chosen sport a few times, base skills and fitness are portable between sporting codes, and the added challenge of learning new sports-specific movements and skills will be beneficial in the long run.

Individual pursuits

If your child is not keen on being involved in sports and you don’t want to push them, there are plenty of other options to keep them physically active. Some kids are resistant to the competitive nature of sports but can benefit from the discipline of a regular activity that they can progress and improve, such as skateboarding or running. Many gyms and recreation centres offer a range of activities and classes that a non-sporting child can attend. Fitness New Zealand has recently developed a set of guidelines for children in exercise facilities. They recommend avoiding specific weight training for children under the age of 13, with training between 13- to 16-years depending on the child’s size.

For more information on the Fitness New Zealand guidelines for kids in gyms, go to http://site.fitnessnz.co.nz/fitness-and-exercise-industry/children-in-exercise-facilities.

Don’t worry

if your child switches their chosen sport a few times, base skills and fitness are portable between sporting codes, and the added challenge of learning new sports-specific movements and skills will probably be beneficial in the long run.

The basic movement skills of sports such as running, catching, throwing and dodging are suitable for all ages. The addition of more sport-specific skills needs to be introduced as a child’s coordination improves, their body size increases and their ability to understand consequences develops. A toddler can manage running after a ball, then once at primary school, the coordination needed to kick, run and aim at a goal can be developed. Full physical contact with other players should be minimised until the teen years, unless carefully supervised.

Ages & Stages


  • Participation focus, it’s all about the ‘doing’
  • Encourage a variety of sports experiences
  • Minimise risk
  • Parents and family are primary role models

5- to 8-years

  • Team focus, awareness of being part of a group
  • Committing to a team or sport
  • Peers and athletes become role models

9- to 12-years

  • Self-focus, taking responsibility for your own training
  • Understanding the need for sacrifice to succeed
  • Balancing teen social desires with sporting commitments
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