For lifelong interest, have kids try out a range of sports

Britain's Laura Trott competing at the Rio 2016 Olympics. The four-time Olympic gold medallist took part in a range of sports, including trampolining and swimming, before specialising in cycling at 14.
Britain's Laura Trott competing at the Rio 2016 Olympics. The four-time Olympic gold medallist took part in a range of sports, including trampolining and swimming, before specialising in cycling at 14.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Sampling different activities in the crucial primary school years can help them find 'their sport' and avoid burn-out

While sports lovers were basking in the gleam of the Olympics and now the Paralympics, this comes amid a general decline in children's basic skills in running, jumping, throwing, catching and kicking.

Worrying findings across the world show that the movement skills of today's children are less well developed than previous generations'. Without these basic skills, most children will fail to find "their sport".

Research has found that children who are skilful tend to be more confident in their ability to perform these skills and, consequently, are more likely to engage in physical activity, which in turn creates opportunities for further skill development.

The reverse is also true. Children with low skill levels are less likely to have confidence in their abilities, are less likely to engage in physical activity and, over time, are more likely to drop out of sport and become obese.

GET CHILDREN MOVING

There is now a body of work that argues that the primary school years are crucial in the path to both lifelong physical activity and elite sports performance. During this phase, children are in what's called their "sampling years", where the emphasis should be on experimenting with new or different kinds of movement while having fun.

Recent research has also shown that skill development at this critical stage is too important to leave to an ad hoc approach. The study was led by one of us, James Rudd. By monitoring 333 children with an average age of eight, we found that a 16-week programme of educational gymnastics - tumbling, jumping, controlled falling and moving in gravity-defying ways - gave a boost to their stability and object-control skills.

These movements are essential aspects of skill development as they enable children to maintain their balance and retain control of their bodies in dynamic situations. The mechanisms which control balance are tightly linked to our sensory system and, hence, are integral not only to sports, but to everything we do.

So while young children should not just focus on gymnastics, it should be included as part of a balanced and varied training programme.

TAKE YOUR PICK

Sampling a wide range of different sports can not only help develop children's movement skills but also their emotional and cognitive skills. One moment they are playing football with 10 other children and are allowed to use only their feet and, two days later, they are playing basketball with four other children and are allowed to use only their hands.

This sampling develops a broad set of physical competencies and tactics that can be transferred from one sport to another.

For example, creating space in basketball has much in common with football, while outwitting an opponent in badminton is similar to tennis and volleyball. Children can also learn psychological skills such as how to set goals that they can use both in other sports and other areas of life.

There are also social benefits, as playing a range of sports connects young people to a range of friends and role models. Young people who specialise in one sport may have a narrow range of friends and their sense of identity is often fragile as it is largely focused on one sport, for example: "I am a footballer". This might not end well if the young person is released from his football club, resulting in the loss of his social network, positive identity, and potential career.

LEARN FROM THE BEST

Specialising in one sport at an early age can lead to burn-out as young people can lose the love of sport and their intrinsic motivation. This is not to say that participants should never focus on a specific sport, rather that participants should develop a good skills foundation by sampling a range of activities until their early teens.

Perhaps a good example of this is the 21-year-old Olympic swimming sensation Adam Peaty who reportedly started training specifically in swimming only at the age of 14. Four-time Olympic gold medallist Laura Trott also participated in a range of sports, including trampolining and swimming, before specialising in cycling at 14.

In 2013, a retrospective analysis of 1,006 athletes in Britain found that those who competed in three or more sports at age 11 were significantly more likely to compete at national level when they were 18 than those who competed in only one sport.

There are many ways for children to get involved in different sports. These can be as simple as parents providing opportunities for play in the back garden or at a local park, or finding out about classes taught by specialist coaches at their nearest sports centre.

As children start the new school year, it is important teachers make sure that they are experiencing a varied and substantial physical education. The route to both Olympic medals (in most sports) and lifelong participation begins with experimenting, tasting and playing a wide range of sports.

•The writers are senior lecturers at Liverpool John Moores University.

•This article first appeared in The Conversation (http://theconversation.com), a website which carries analyses by academics and researchers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'For lifelong interest, have kids try out a range of sports'. Print Edition | Subscribe