Sport plays a large part in all children’s daily life here at Cargilfield. We play sport every afternoon, we have sporting clubs every break time and after supper every evening, we have competitive inter school matches every Wednesday afternoon and often at weekends, and we take part in national competitions, playing in Finals as far away as Somerset and Bristol. We consider sport a vital part in the children’s education development here, aiming for excellence where possible but also striving to provide competitive opportunities for all children to take part, to improve, and most importantly to enjoy their sport at whatever level they play.
Like academic work, children’s sporting talent and enthusiasm develop at different speeds, so we try to adopt a ‘Sport for All’ policy as well as trying to aim for excellence and provide our talented athletes with pathways which may well lead on to district or national representation. Just as children become bored if not stretched academically, the same applies on the sports field and it is always a difficult balancing act, providing opportunities for all to take part as well as challenging the more able and finding top quality opposition against whom we can test ourselves. At Cargilfield, we have nurtured full international amateur golfers, cricket, rugby and hockey players over the past twenty years, but have also engendered a love of sport, we hope, in so many more children which they will take on in to adulthood, long after they have moved on from here.
However, just how hard should we push our children? When should children specialise and focus on just one sport? Or is it our job as teachers and parents to expose children to as many different sports as possible to engender a love of physical activity and exercise? Many parents will be aware or have heard of the 10,000 hour rule publicised by Malcolm Gladwell, and which often appears in the media when discussing talented athletes. The principle holds that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field whether it is in music, business, art or sport.
As well as the 10,000 hour rule the media coverage of the road to success for Tiger Woods in golf and the Williams sisters in tennis who spent a large part of their childhood practising and specialising in one sport has been seen by many parents as the blueprint to success. However, for all the success of Woods and the Williams sisters there will have been thousands of failures attempting the above model – the only difference is that we do not know anything about it!
Long term athletic development requires far more components than just deliberate practice. Two of the biggest issues evolving from the 10,000 hour rule are single sport specialisation and the push for early selection to elite sporting programmes run by National Governing Bodies such as the SRU, Scottish Hockey, the FA and British Swimming amongst others.
Many parents now feel the need to get their child to 10,000 hours as soon as possible and to do this will ultimately mean focussing the vast majority of time and money playing and practising just one sport as opposed to experiencing a wide range of activities. This can rob them of their childhood and many children do not find the sport they would have enjoyed the most and become the most successful at.
Single sport specialisation at an early age can lead to problems such as burnout, injury, lack of motivation and also psychological issues yet parents often cannot see beyond the initial short term success in helping their children achieve the best from their sport.
Sport should be a lifelong, long term investment for any child and any parent. The fact still remains that although there may be exceptions many top level sportsmen and women sampled a variety of sports during their early years and only in their teenage years did they really begin to specialise and focus on one specific sport.
The next issue for parents is that they are pushing and being pushed for their children to get selected into elite sports programmes at a younger age fearing that if they do not do it immediately they will struggle to get there in the future. In the UK perhaps football poses the biggest problem for parents due to its early selection criteria. With the offering of contracts by professional football clubs at the age of 9 many parents have been caught in a rat race thinking that the initial offering of a contract will give them the best chance of creating a professional footballer.
Going back a generation footballers were not invited into the professional football clubs until their early teenage years yet now clubs are picking up children into development programmes as young as the age of 5. In the years that children should be sampling a large majority of sports children are playing football all year round and even at the end of the season when the summer gives them the opportunity to recover and refresh many are involved in summer tournaments most weekends in the pursuit of recognition from the professional clubs.
Professional sportsmen and women have some time off each year to recuperate and do something different yet many parents are finding it acceptable to flog their young children all year round in the pursuit of success, yet the chances of ever ‘making it’ as a top class professional is miniscule. There are lots of sports which have started to select and give representative honours at a far earlier age than they did a generation ago adding fuel to the fire that these children may become professionals in the long term and increasing the expectations of parents along the way.
Clearly, it is important that as parents that we can keep a real sense of perspective on our children’s sport. Why is your child playing? What do you want them to achieve? That does not mean that your child cannot dream of being a professional or indeed you can even think about it but with the statistics of this becoming a reality this expectation must be managed accordingly.
No matter how many hours you practise there is still no guarantee of long term success. Obviously, as with anything hours of practise will lead to improvement but it offers no guarantees in the future. We want children to be involved in sport all of their life so keeping them fresh by letting them try lots of different sports and finding what they truly love will help achieve this. To encourage a life long love of sport, and so experience all the associated benefits, exposure to as many different sports as possible must be the aim.
Fundamentally there is nothing wrong if your child is fortunate enough to be selected in elite sports programmes at a young age. Great facilities, good coaches, playing with good players are all positives but it is the management of this experience that will allow your child to gain the most from it and give your child valuable lessons that they can take into all aspects of life with them.
More important than anything else is that we must make sure that they are enjoying their sporting experience, and not us as parents or teachers! Unless children enjoy their sport, there will come a time where they will simply stop and walk away no matter how good they are……
Something to ponder, as we head off to yet another tennis lesson on a Saturday morning with your little ones in the back of the car!