When my son was a toddler, he loved chasing and kicking a ball around. Just before his fourth birthday, on the advice of some friends with sporty toddlers, I signed him up for a soccer camp.
He was so excited when we collected his jersey and socks on the first day. But by the time I picked him up from camp, his demeanour had changed and he didn’t want to return.
He looked at me and said, “Mama, I just wanted to play.”
It seemed crazy that after a single session, he was doubting his interest in the sport altogether.
Sports camps focus on skill development
Ideally, sports camps are designed for basic skill acquisition, to get children comfortable with the rules of the game, and to “get kids to fall in love with the game.” But too often the “fun” is lost as kids repeat activities and participate in training sessions without much variety or many opportunities to laugh and simply play.
Often, kids are already competing against each other. Early on, the ones who have potential are identified—meaning that the ones who aren’t quickly come to understand that they may not be as good as their teammates.
Related video: Developing soccer talent in kids takes time
As children grow, the nature of development should evolve
At Active for Life, we know that kids develop physical literacy gradually through a variety of structured and unstructured activities. The nature of these activities changes as kids grow in age and ability.
For a child my son’s age, activities should be fun and playful, and should encourage the development of fundamental movement skills. As a child ages, it’s appropriate to increase the focus on sport-specific skills, but every child’s readiness may vary. Pushing children to perform before they’re ready can impede their development and interest in that particular activity, sometimes resulting in less daily physical activity altogether.
Sometimes, all children want to do is have fun. And at a young age, that should be enough—even for those who might like to pursue the sport more seriously in the future.
As a parent, the pressure to put your child in sports early is real. You don’t want them to be behind before they have a chance to get ahead.
But what is the cost? Will your child give up right away? What would it take to get them interested in kicking around a ball again?
How can we encourage young athletes to stay in sports?
Much like soccer, hockey is an amazing sport for developing speed, agility, and team spirit. But the pressure on young players is intense, even for the youngest athletes under the age of 12. Many drop out because they just aren’t good enough, even at such a young age.
Would it be different if kids’ sports applied less pressure and focused on more pleasure?
Would children be less discouraged if players all had a fair shot at passing, shooting, and manoeuvring the puck? What if we took the pressure off kids without making them commute long distances to games and practices across town? What if sports such as hockey were more affordable for families?
New efforts yield encouraging results
Sweden’s Ice Hockey Federation tackles these exact issues in a research project exploring how to keep young athletes interested in playing hockey. The project, a collaboration with Halmstad University, George Washington University, and the Swedish Basketball Federation, aims to “facilitate fun and prolong Swedish youth’s participation in sport” by clearly defining what constitutes fun for children in sports.
Why? When children are having fun, they’re less likely to quit and more likely to continue playing—recreationally or competitively.
As a result of the study, the Swedes have already made important changes (article is only available in French) to improve kids’ experience of sport and make it more fun for young players.
For example, young players can have the opportunity to play in several different positions, and children will play 3-on-3 on smaller rinks until the age of 12—allowing players more access to the puck. Coaches are given clear directives about the type of leadership necessary when training children.
But the country has recognized for years that these changes are necessary. The federation has long been aware of the positive outcomes of placing more emphasis on children having fun. In Sweden, young players don’t commute long distances for games, players are not ranked, and the cost of registration at the introductory level is below $200.
The result? More participation and a higher number of children staying in the sport.
Can our young Canadian athletes benefit from the Swedish experiment?
Sweden continues to be a force to be reckoned with in the world of hockey. Could young Canadian players benefit from Sweden’s innovative program to develop hockey skills in children, all while focusing on their enjoyment of the sport?
As it turns out, Canadian athletic organizations are also realizing the importance of keeping sports fun. Hockey Canada is also making key changes, like mandating small-ice hockey for younger players, to ensure kids develop age-appropriate skills while learning to love the game. But we may still have more work to do.
Focusing on identifying young players with the potential to become elite athletes continues to drive less-skilled players away. Experts studying the decline of sports participation say this approach leads most kids to believe that they are just not good enough.
For my six-year-old son, the soccer ball still lives on the ball rack in the garage, but one of his favourite activities is playing street hockey in our driveway with his dad. They practice shooting and passing, but mostly, they bond and laugh. He loves all things hockey and says that it’s his favourite sport.
I wonder if hockey has replaced soccer in our family because we’ve only ever kept it light and fun. How will he feel about it once we do sign him up for a team or classes? I hope my son never questions if he’s “good enough” to play hockey and that this is the beginning of a passion he will always enjoy.