Some children dread the annual school sports day that is coming up any week now. They are probably the same youngsters who rejoice in wet Saturday mornings that cause matches to be cancelled, and who are in a habit of “forgetting” their PE gear.
With stark warnings about how Ireland is heading to be the most obese country in Europe by 2030, it can be troubling for a parent faced with a non-sporty child. It’s not that sport and fitness are inextricably linked but a passion for a particular game or two will help to clock up the recommended daily minimum of an hour’s physical activity.
So if your child is, at best, happier picking daisies rather than kicking the ball at soccer matches, or, at worst, getting stomach pains at the very thought of togging out for camogie, it’s time to talk and explore other possibilities.
Jennifer and her husband have always adopted a policy of “try it and see” with their daughter Caroline (not their real names) but are becoming resigned to the fact that she may never find one she likes. Although her husband is very into sport, Jennifer never was and understands the “horror” her 10-year-old daughter is going through.
“She is not a sporty kid; she is not very physically integrated. She has two flat feet and it is not going to happen for her,” says Jennifer. On top of that, she’s an introvert and dislikes team games, although her parents think they teach important life skills.
“One day she said to me, ‘Why don’t you accept me as I am? Why are you trying to change me?’ It took me aback,” says Jennifer. “She said, ‘It is so humiliating. Every team I am put on they lose. I am never picked: a teacher has to put me on a team.’ I realised it was reinforcing something very negative for her.”
Even though Caroline goes to a very noncompetitive school in Dublin, sports day is still “an absolute nightmare” for her. The morning we talk, both parents were up early helping Caroline with some last-minute practice in skipping because she had been worrying for days that she was going to have to do it at PE that day.
They go out for lots of family walks but Jennifer is concerned that her daughter will not have enough activity in her life as she moves on to secondary school and then into adulthood.
“I worry that she won’t be fit, and I know how important that is.” However, Caroline does like to dance at home and is now keen to try ballet.
As a mother, Jennifer is torn between not wanting to make an issue about physical activities with her daughter and, at the same time, wishing she could help her find something she would really enjoy.
“You want to give them the experience, to see if something will take, without them feeling forced,” she says.
Children may not dislike sports per se but simply the few that are being offered at school. Or maybe the team element puts them off and an individual sport, such as athletics, sailing, tennis or surfing would suit them better; they are not depending on somebody to pass them the ball.
Physical education (PE) at school is supposed to develop in children a desire for daily activity, which they will bring into adult life.
The broad curriculum, encompassing six strands ranging from athletics and dance to gymnastics and games, aims to give children a wide taste of physical exertion and you would hope that there’s at least one that will enthuse them.
At this time of year, for example, primary schools may do the outdoor adventures section with activities such as orienteering and co-operative games.
Being more brain-focused, these tend to appeal to the “less physically literate children”, says Caitríona Cosgrave, a member of the Irish Primary PE Association Committee.
With some pupils, “the moment you do something competitive, you can see them shutting down”. And vice versa: introduce an element of competition and others will thrive. Then there are the children who are reluctant to take part in most PE lessons.
“I don’t allow them to sit out,” says Cosgrave, who cajoles pupils into trying things while reassuring them that within a few weeks they will be moving on to some other activity they might like.
The trouble is that some schools don’t cover the breadth of the curriculum, particularly if a local sports club offers to run PE classes for them.
“Unfortunately, there is sometimes the mentality that anybody in a tracksuit with a whistle around their neck will do.” While her association agrees there is a role for external coaches in schools, this should be for only a few weeks.
It is incumbent on teachers to ask what the coaches will be doing “and not just hand over our classes”, she says. Likewise, if parents find their children are doing the same sport during PE for months on end, they should be asking questions.
However, schools where team sports are played just for fun can come under pressure from parents who think that the standard is not high enough.
“Society is focused a lot on the elite: we are still looking for the really good kids all the time and leaving the other ones behind. A cultural mindshift needs to happen.”
Young children love to be active, and it is only when they get a bit older that dropping out of sports becomes a problem. A common reason given in the teenage years, when there’s a marked decrease in sports participation, is that “it’s no fun”.
But sports coach Aled Hughes says if you probe a bit deeper into that statement, as one research study did, often what they’re really saying is that they are no good at it.
When you’re eight and playing tennis but can’t hit the ball over the net it doesn’t really matter because you’re with your friends, he points out. But when you’re 14 years old and you can’t hit a ball over the net, it’s “no fun” – because it’s embarrassing.
It’s a stage of life when youngsters are measuring themselves against their peers and they tend to avoid activities that make them feel inadequate. They regard sport as all about the outcome – winning or losing – but that’s not the approach Hughes takes to teaching.
“You can’t control the outcome,” he points out. “So I teach the performance.”
His concern is that young children often don’t get a proper grounding in fundamental movement skills, such as catching, throwing and running, in which case a premature introduction to particular sports can be an unhappy experience.
“The national games are very, very important. But a game like hurling is so difficult – the skill level to play hurling is just immense,” he says.
Another reason for a sport being “no fun” may be the attitude of the coaches – or the parents.
Clinical psychologist Sarah O’Doherty sees problems when very sporty parents are pushy about their children following in their footsteps and, likewise, when parents who wish they had been sporty trying to project this on to their offspring.
“Some children are just never going to be good at sport,” she says, and they need to try to get its undoubted benefits in other ways. In addition to the fitness and team-building aspects, there is the value of having an activity at which you can keep challenging yourself.
“But that doesn’t have to be sport. That can be chess or bridge or Scouts.”
Socialising can be more difficult for a lone dissenter among, say, a class of soccer-loving boys, particularly in the later stages of primary school. It is not just the kick-abouts during break time that he misses out on (although rotation of activities in the yard can help here).
“They talk about who did a good shot out in the yard and what they’ve seen on TV. It is not just about what physically happens in the yard, they’re talking about it afterwards,” she says.
Hughes advises parents of children who are considered “unsporty” to try to engage them in a physical activity that isn’t labelled as sport. The Co-Dex Kids programme he teaches is one, as is the Be Active after-school programme promoted by HSE Dublin North East.
Generally children have a “way too narrow” choice of sports at school or in the community. And people tend to think of sport as the main ones they see on television, whereas there are many others that might suit a child (see panel).
As parents, our aim should be to help children develop an enduring love of a particular physical activity or two, from which they will reap lifelong health benefits. So a 2013 study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on sport participation makes interesting reading.
Keeping Them in the Game: Taking Up and Dropping Out of Sport and Exercise in Ireland found that by 10 or 12 years of age almost all children are involved in regular activity, although many still don't meet the recommended daily levels of exercise. However, almost half of those will stop doing a regular physical activity during the next decade or so of their lives.
So, statistically, what sport is your child more likely to keep up into adulthood? Well, participating only in team sports didn’t augur well.
"The rate of drop-out from team sports played at school and college is severe," according to the authors, Pete Lunn, Elish Kelly and Nick Fitzpatrick. "Our estimates are that among participants aged 16 and over, more than 75 per cent of basketball players, 53 per cent of hurlers and 52 per cent of Gaelic football players will have dropped out of the sport within three to four years. The estimate for soccer is lower, at 23 per cent, while for the most popular individual activities the rate of drop-out is lower again."
They noted that children who learn to cycle and, especially, to swim, are more likely to participate in these activities later in life and right into old age.
The study also revealed that, while there is a very high rate of drop-out from sport and exercise among students in exam years, participation in sport is unlikely to affect exam performance negatively and may well have a positive impact.
In follow-up research published this month, Lunn and Kelly concluded that students who participate in sport in their final years of second-level school are “significantly and substantially more likely to continue their formal education after leaving school”.
For more information see irishprimarype.com; esri.ie; aledhughes.ie.
Six activities to try
If your child isn’t enjoying mainstream sports, why not consider:
Martial arts: The Irish Martial Arts Commission represents all disciplines (imac.ie).
Canoeing: The 2015 Junior Liffey Descent this Saturday, May 23rd, might be an inspiration. For more details and to find a club, see canoe.ie.
Ultimate Frisbee: Now recognised by the International Olympic Council. See how it’s played at the Dublin Summer League in Fairview Park from June 1st (irishultimate.com) Orienteering: Get fresh air and exercise while using your head. Details of upcoming family summer series and taster events on orienteering.ie.
Rock-climbing: The proliferation of indoor walls has made this more accessible for children. See indoorclimbing.com for a list.
Horseriding: Find an accredited centre near you through the Association of Irish Riding Establishments (aire.ie).