Restrict rep sport to older kids to better nurture talent

Sport New Zealand says ‘save the pressure of rep selection’ and let kids grow, SNZ talent consultant Alex Chiet explains why.

OPINION: Mainland Netball took a bold but important step in scrapping its Year 7 and Year 8 representative teams. Margaret Foster was right to challenge it, too. Change should be challenged, but there are some big issues here that we need to address.

New Zealanders’ participation in sport is following a global trend – downwards. Less active young Kiwis means less kids getting the most of the healthy, social, fun things sport has to offer. It means less chance of our youngsters having a life-long love of being active, and it means a smaller pool of talent from which we can nurture and develop Kiwis towards elite sport and, for some, world championship or Olympic glory.

Children under 12 should be playing sport for fun without the pressure of representative selection, says Sport NZ.

Lawrence Gullery

Children under 12 should be playing sport for fun without the pressure of representative selection, says Sport NZ.

So why cut intermediate rep teams?

Last year Sport NZ released a Talent Plan – a guide for sports bodies to help them, keep more young people involved in competitive sport, and develop more promising young sportspeople. This wasn’t something we took lightly. We studied best practice and lessons from around the world, spoke to many former athletes and coaches, and worked with a huge number of sporting bodies. Netball included.

Through this we found that three commonly held beliefs simply don’t hold true.

Many think early specialisation is good. Choose a sport when you’re young and give it everything you’ve got. It works for some, but not for all. Burn out, over-use injuries and declining motivation are too often the reality.

Trying different sports builds transferable skills and keeps minds fresh.  Most elite athletes play a range of sports when they are young and many do not focus just on the sport they excel in until their late teenage years.

Next: successful athletes focus on winning. I’ve coached youth football and, sure, I’ve seen kids counting the goals in games without a final score. As I coach, I’m happy for them to do that, but I’m focussing them on the importance of development – trying the things we practised, being innovative and reinforcing character traits, like being a good team mate, working hard – rather than if they win or lose.

Finally, that childhood success leads to adult success. We’ve also seen the videos of the young Richie McCaw. No one can question his greatness, but the reality is that all athletes are different. I don’t just mean average, good or great – progress in sport is not a linear thing. Kids develop and reach their potential at different times, and we need to give them time to do that.

That’s why Mainland Netball has made a great call.

At ages around 10 and 11 it’s needle in a haystack stuff when it comes to picking talent. Sure, there are some Silver Ferns – All Blacks too – who were on the pathway to greatness before high school came calling. But most weren’t – and aren’t – and it’s another reality that kids who feel the pressure of making rep teams (or the failure of not) are more likely to turn away from sport.

Save the pressure until kids are older – and give clubs, coaches and sports more time to keep all young people involved and identify their future stars.

That time is also good for the kids. We need to ensure developing athletes realise their potential, and have the frame of mind to make this possible, at the right age. In all sports, all around the country, you see what too much pressure too early can do. Teenage kids burning out, their bodies breaking down. And when these happen they will never achieve their potential as a senior athlete.

And this is not just an issue in talent development. One of the biggest challenges we’re facing up to at Sport NZ is how to arrest declining participation among our teenagers. Technology, body image and hanging out with your mates are all forces here. Burn outs and break downs are too.

There’s a toughness and resilience that makes New Zealanders great, and these can be big forces when it comes to our sporting success too. What we talk about with talent development may sound to some like a cotton wool society. In some ways, I guess it is. But we know that it’s right.

The more kids we keep playing netball – or rugby or rowing or tennis – the more active and healthy their society will be when they’re adults. Keep more kids playing and our talent pool will be deeper. Give sports more time to judge that talent, so they develop the widest group of athletes for the longest time.

I applaud Mainland Netball for what they have done. Reducing the pressure on 10 and 11-year-old netballers, providing more coaching and competition opportunities for more young netball players; can only be a good thing – for their development, and for the sport.

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