Internationally recognized sports psychologist Rainer Martens once said that sport is like a double-edged sword. Swung in the right direction, the sword can have tremendously positive effects, but swung in the wrong direction it can be devastating. The sword is held by adults who supervise childrens’ sports. Whether sport is constructive or destructive in the psychological development of young children greatly depends on the values, education, and skills of those adults.
The reason I am writing this is because this week what I have witnessed in a local club has left me shocked and very disappointed. James is only four and has attended rugby tots locally in Castleknock since he was 2. He absolutely adores it. The mere mention of the ‘R’ word and he jumps up and down with excitement.
Rugbytots ( www.rugbytots.ie )is the first of its kind; a specifically designed play programme using the multiple skills of Rugby to create a fun and enjoyable environment whilst developing basic core motor skills. Their programme has been designed to develop a child’s physical, psychological and social attributes, as well as gently encouraging rugby specific skills such as running with the ball, finding space, kicking, catching, scoring a try and much more.
James is starting school in September and his time in rugby tots will be coming to an end. A lot of my friends have children in local clubs so I attend their games and training from time to time to catch up with friends and get a feel for a club, as I would like James to try a few sports to see what he likes.
Unfortunately though all I have witnessed recently is bullying and adults shouting and screaming at children. One particular coach even screamed abuse and continued to rant at a parent when she asked why the same girls were always left on the sidelines at every match. That evening when I was reading James a story he told me he was scared of that man and that he says awful things about people. When I asked him what he meant he said he was always screaming. I don’t scream, rant and shout like a lunatic at James so I certainly don’t expect him to witness this kind of behaviour at a very reputable sports club.
On further investigation my friend whose daughter plays for the team was assured that this was not their policy and it was most certainly a breach of their code and it would be dealt with and taken seriously. However at the next training session the same man was there! I asked around my friends with kids of varying ages and inquired about how they felt about their children’s sports and to be honest I was really surprised that the majority ‘off the record’ had quite a lot of concerns.
I was informed that players who were weaker were left on the sidelines as it was about winning at all costs. We need to remember here that these are children between the ages of 7 – 13 and they are not playing for Ireland just yet!! I also questioned how it was possible for them to improve sitting on the sideline, as surely giving them a run out would increase confidence and enable them to up skill and learn more. Development wise what’s important for children here is their peer development, learning about winning and losing, encouraging a feeling of belonging and value, becoming part a community and most importantly being physically active.
People coaching sport need to remember that competitiveness comes from a feeling of achievement. If we don’t allow children to achieve how will they ever learn to become competitive in the fashion in which they should. It’s a well-known fact that the level of dropout from sports is incredibly high in teenage years. There are a lot factors that lead to this but if what I witnessed is anything to go by I’m not surprised that when you reach an age where you find your voice and have an ability to fight back you do it in this way. I hated my gym teacher in school as he always put everyone down and never made you feel good. For this reason I abandoned exercise for many years.
I’ll be going through a lot of changes with James in the coming months and these will hopefully include him starting in a new sports clubs. As a parent I will be standing up and challenging poor behavior on the sideline to make sure the game is fair for everyone and if you are a parent and your child is struggling you need to speak up and not feel bullied by anyone because it is only from speaking up that change will happen.
All our kids deserve a fair chance and children play sport to play sport, the role of the coach is to facilitate this not have them on the bench. It’s really is that simple.