The sports lesson our kids aren’t getting: you don’t have to play to win

The sports lesson our kids aren’t getting: you don’t have to play to win

April 4, 2022

A recent report that junior sports clubs are facing “dwindling participation numbers” and looking for a way to make junior sport “a more accepting, inclusive and enjoyable environment” struck a chord in our household.

All three of my boys were politely edged out of the organised sport world pretty early on. The message they got was clear: those who cannot compete, need not apply.

The message to junior players is often off-putting to those who aren’t star athletes.Credit:Eddie Jim

My eldest was in a cricket team when he was 10, and he loved playing a relaxed game every weekend with his friends. However, after one companionable season the club decided to cherry-pick the best players to create a team that could compete at a higher grade level.

The kids who weren’t picked were left scrambling to rebuild their team. It proved to be a real buzzkill and as a result, my son lost the vibe for cricket soon after.

Another of my sons was in a soccer team for a while, but at one particular game, when he was forced to play goalie and subsequently let too many go through, the game became decidedly un-fun. Everyone groaned and one of his team-mates shrieked, “You’re the worst goalie ever!” My boy laughed it off at the time, but come the next soccer season, he decided team sports weren’t for him.

Without the infrastructure of local team sports, our family’s connection to ball games fell away. I accept part of the blame for that. I could have fostered it, encouraged it as a parent, but there was also the impression they were getting from the organised sporting world: sport is for winning.

Now my boys are all young adults and like the rest of their generation they are grappling with the cumulative effects of COVID lockdowns plus the baseline handicap of a dependence on apps for social connection.

Anxiety and depression are common among their peers, and they’ve all had their moment. In these moments, they are continually given the advice that physical activity/exercise will help them. But they have no reference point for how sport can be fun and informal. As a result, their only thought is … “What? Join a gym?”

When I was in my early 20s, playing in bands, I toured with a popular Melbourne band who were having their chart-topping moment. Four (sensitive, folksy) blokes and me in a van on a whistle-stop tour of regional Victoria. Each time we stopped at a town, the guys would scramble out of the van and immediately start booting a football between them.

There were no rules and no minimum skills requirements, I was expected to join in, and so I did. The footy thing was meditative and communal: simple, connecting, soothing, physical. No gym memberships, no clubs and grades, just a ball and whatever patch of grass outside a motel we could find.

The grind of touring could be wearing on everyone’s mental health, but we all knew something that our kids sadly, have not been taught: sometimes sport is just for fun.

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