John Allen: Listen and let children play their own game

Competitive sport at too early an age can be detrimental as confidence key

It’s that time of the year again. Summer holidays almost here. No school. And summer camps which cater for a wide range of interests. The GAA is up there with the best of them in their value-for-money Cúl Camps.The child gets his or her gear and backpack and a week of fun. But of course they are material things and, while they matter a little, they don’t really. From the parents’ perspective they want their children to have a good time in a safe environment. They want their child occupied at something they are developing an interest in. Learning is a bonus.

How times have changed for the better in Ireland as far as the treatment of our children is concerned. Well gone are the days of children should be seen and not heard . It's refreshing to see the guidelines the GAA have in place for the 21st century participant, guidelines which are divided up into three very distinct areas: the child, youth and adult.

Gone is the one size fits all theory. The child needs to treated as a child and not as a young adult.The child needs some structure and some experiment. The child needs encouragement and reinforcement. The child needs to feel wanted and useful. The child needs to feel a sense of worth after each session. The child should go home wanting to be back again the next day.

Properly structured and delivered sessions play a great part in helping to develop confident children and later hopefully they will have the self-worth to mature into confident adolescents and adults. I don’t think we can measure or value confidence enough. Confidence in any area of a child’s life is probably enough to carry them to achievement and happiness as adults.


However there are still too many of the adults/parents who patrol, pound, police the sidelines at children’s games and bark out orders and criticism. It’s time for a re-evaluation of the purpose of their involvement in their children’s hobbies. It’s time for those same adults to cease projecting their adults values onto those young immature shoulders. It’s time for them to realise that the child is not participating to give the adult a – by association – shot at the glory that possibly eluded themselves as children. It’s time for them to accept that many children have little or no interest as to who wins or loses the games that they play. Present-day research very much indicates that children want their pastimes and games to be fun and enjoyable.

Unburdened by fear of failure, they will be free to enjoy the simple pleasures of kicking, catching, passing, saving and striking a ball. Sport played in a spirit of fun and inclusiveness will afford them space to grow and learn without any weight of expectation. To make friends and acquire fresh skills, hone technique, and hopefully grow a lasting affinity with their chosen sport.

Elite sportspeople

It seems ironic that, while elite sportspeople are often encouraged by psychologists to forget about winning and losing and instead focus on process, we believe our children should do the opposite. If, as high as, two-thirds of schoolchildren say they wouldn’t care if games were no longer competitive, maybe we should listen.

Indeed, when all is said and done and when we – as mature adults – with the wisdom we gain in sometimes sorry increments over a lifetime, reach a point in our lives where we’re not half as important or as needed as we thought we were, realise that belonging is very important and necessary, it’s often too late to regret the childhood we denied our children.

The schoolyard in Kilbarry, Kildorrery or Kilnamartyra have games in which winning isn't important. Participating is. Being allowed to develop in increments is important. Confidence is important.

Confidence is not something that can be learned like a set of rules, confidence is a state of mind. Confidence comes from feelings of well-being which of course are fostered by the child achieving in his own time.

Low confidence can be a result of many factors, including: fear of the unknown and fear of failure and criticism.

We, in the GAA world, want to increase participation. We want to provide games for all levels. We want to avoid situations where there’s a big fall off in numbers playing hurling and football.

Then at the youth stage hopefully we will have many confident players of differing levels and ability who want to play our national games. We will then be in the very strong position of having a large player base, more competition for places on teams where winning and losing has a significance.

Emotionally mature

The more emotionally mature the participant is, the better his capability to deal with the vagaries of winning and losing. And maybe

Rudyard Kipling

oft quoted lines from his poem


might make sense:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster; And treat those two impostors just the same.

The bigger picture has to be recognised. Children’s sport should have fun at its core. Life can be pressurised and complicated enough and children’s sport should be enjoyable, inclusive and fun and not another pressure in a world in which many young people and adults don’t know how to differentiate between what’s really important and what is just downright trivial.