N’s been doing some kind of organised sports for most of his life. It started with swimming – learning first at Water Babies, and then normal swimming lessons. Then taking up tennis at the end of reception year. I think the way organised kids sports are approached nowadays is so different to when I was a child.
Kids sport back in my childhood
I started out as totally unsporty. I was the child who’d still be at the start of a race and everyone else had gone running off leaving me behind. But once we moved county and school, suddenly sport was something I picked up, enjoyed and took part in. Pretty much most sports but largely via school.
Primary school sports was dependent on teachers having a particular interest. So we did a lot of netball, even having some matches. And a bit of hockey too. Sports day was the usual high jump, long jump, throwing a tennis ball, and running races (or if you weren’t in the top 8 to get into the sprint, you did the ‘fun’ races like 3 legged race, egg and spoon etc).
We lived on a modern commuter housing estate on the edge of a village with a huge green in the middle, so all the kids used to play football, cricket, rounders on the green, and roller hockey, tennis and various other sports down the road.
The only real options for out of school sports was football or cricket clubs (boys). Week long summer camps for tennis. Or you could join the town running and athletics club. Most of these clubs were for older children, not primary age.
It wasn’t until secondary school when there were more options of sports for children. Hockey club – but the junior coach left so the kids ended up training with the adults (my 10 year old brother, when he’d been about to try out for county, got a ball to the chest which put him off playing again). Rugby, football and cricket. Most seemed quite boy oriented. There weren’t really any options for girls to get involved.
I was lucky enough to do a week’s summer course with my brother to learn squash age 11. We ended up enjoying it and joined as juniors at the village squash club for a few years. I then ended up continuing through uni and afterwards for a club.
Even if you were focusing more on one sport, the training was minimal. I played a lot of tennis at school, I was tennis captain at secondary and 6th form. I even tried out for county at one stage after flukily winning an area school’s tournament (only 3 girls took part, all from my school!). We were only ever given rudimentary ‘here’s how you hold the racket’, ‘here’s the swing’ guidance. Otherwise it was a lot of hitting practice with no real advice, and a lot of serving ball toss practice. We also only played seasonally. Tennis was only played in the summer term and summer holidays. Comparing my level of tennis when I played a lot at age 18 to the standard I see 11 year olds play now, we were so far behind where they are.
Kids sport now
Nowadays, sports coaching for children is so much more focused.
In schools, they have external coaches coming in to teach different sports and activities. There’s more choice especially in primary schools – multisports, dance, yoga, tennis, hockey, dodge ball. N’s school even had a parent come in for several weeks teaching Aussie rules football. They’re learning a lot of different skills that will help with whatever sports they play.
Those coaches often have sports academies they run elsewhere in their business. So they’re always on the look out for children showing talent who they can recruit and recommend to take training further.
For out of school training, sports are so much more precise and technical. For starters, sporting governing bodies want to get a funnel of prospective professionals to work towards national and international representation. That means they want to get children or young people training early, so they have the skills. In the UK compared with other countries, our children tend to start serious training later, but now these bodies need to get the performance and results to warrant funding, starting children earlier may mean more options for the people to choose from earlier in their potential careers.
I’ve seen with both tennis and swimming (and I presume it’s the same with other sports), how precise the training is. N was only learning swimming from a safety aspect, but from the start it was about learning each component part of each stroke before putting it all together. He did have a technical (and strict) teacher compared with the others, which some didn’t like. But for him he enjoyed the ‘right or wrong’ aspect of the training. It meant he ended up with really good technique that hopefully he won’t lose now he’s stopped swimming lessons.
With tennis, much depends on the coaching you have. But they build up from learning the swing, to the ball connection etc. In individual lessons, they’ll break it down further until each part is in their muscle memory, and they’re using the specific technique.
Sports today still makes it fun, especially for younger children. Often there are rewards and certificates to encourage children to continue. But there’s also more opportunities out there for children who want to work harder, want to compete (if you search for it), and progress.
Depending on the child, some coaches and sports will work for them, others won’t. We’re lucky because N wants to learn, he wants to improve. Ok, he might have slightly unrealistic hopes for the future, but hopefully he’s got a good grounding that will enable him maybe to help out juniors when he’s older, do some coaching assistant qualifications to give him more options, and mean he’ll be able to play for a club later on in life. He does get frustrated with children in group sessions who don’t really want to be there, or muck around and disturb the ones who do want to learn. But he’s lucky that he can have private lessons too to make up for more practice and tailored lessons.
Sports for children today is very different to sport in the 80s and 90s. And I think children are better for it. Give them the grounding, give them the opportunities, but still let them enjoy it.
How do you find kids sports nowadays compared with your childhood?