Online dis­cus­sion of an ar­ti­cle this week sug­gests over-com­pe­ti­tion in sport is a com­mon is­sue. It’s bad for chil­dren’s men­tal health, say ex­perts

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Jen­nifer O’Con­nell

‘Idon’t know how to man­age my own anger, f r ust r at i on and utt er gut-wrench­ing hurt for him when he sobs that he is not good enough,” a con­cerned par­ent wrote in a let­ter to the Ir­ish Times par­ent­ing ex­pert, John Sharry, this week.

Their son’s dev­as­ta­tion was not caused be­cause he was fail­ing at school, or had done some­thing to dis­ap­point his par­ents. In­stead, it was be­cause of be­ing left on the side­lines at un­der-12s GAA matches. The writer said they were an­gry with the coach who, they wrote, “is ex­clud­ing my child”.

The re­sponse to the let­ter – one of the most heav­ily read and dis­cussed ar­ti­cles on irish­times.com this week – sug­gests it is a com­mon sit­u­a­tion. The writer iden­ti­fies a co­nun­drum that all coaches in chil­dren’s sport face at some point. Which should take pri­or­ity: fostering tal­ent or en­cour­ag­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion? At what stage is it okay to let fun and com­mit­ment take a back seat to com­pet­i­tive­ness?

“The goal should be to in­clude as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble for as long as pos­si­ble at their level,” says Sharry. “Over- com­pe­ti­tion in sport is prob­lem­atic for chil­dren’s men­tal health. Some com­pe­ti­tion is fine to keep them fo­cused, but too much is a prob­lem. It’s bad for the less ath­letic kids be­cause they feel bad [or feel] they may be let­ting the team down, and re­jected if they are dropped. But it’s also a prob­lem for the high- achiev­ers who can be­come anx­ious about their per­for­mance.

“To make the most of the en­dur­ing men­tal health ben­e­fits from sport, it should be about en­joy­ment and pas­sion, phys­i­cal ex­er­cise, learn­ing new skills, so­cial­is­ing, and work­ing to­gether at shared tasks.”

Chil­dren should never be left on the side­lines, says He­len Han­ni­gan, an in­ter­na­tional rower for Ire­land who re­tired in 2015, and now as­sists with the coach­ing of un­der-13 girls in foot­ball at Clon­tarf GAA.


“At that age, it should be about get­ting kids in­volved, hav­ing fun, build­ing their con­fi­dence, and devel­op­ing their body aware­ness. So many kids come home from school, do t heir home­work, and go straight on to the Xbox or phones and aren’t do­ing enough phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, which will lead to more health prob­lems as they get older. We should be do­ing ev­ery­thing we can to en­cour­age them to stay in sport.”

By fo­cus­ing ex­clu­sively on tal­ent at younger lev­els, coaches risk over­look­ing emerg­ing stars, says Eoin McGrath, who played hurl­ing for Water­ford for more than a decade, and is still in­volved in coach­ing at club level.

“Even in school teams, you’d al­ways come across the lads who were 50- 50 in terms of abil­ity – but you still have to en­cour­age those lads, be­cause ev­ery­one de­vel­ops at a dif­fer­ent rate. I was a small 12 my­self, and if you’re small at that age, un­less you have pace to burn, you’re go­ing to strug­gle. But by 14 or 15, that kid will have caught up, and he might dis­cover a real tal­ent for it.”

Un­der- 13s camo­gie coach at Clon­tarf GAA, Eoghan Han­ni­gan – who, like his wife He­len, is a for­mer elite rower – makes a point of re­ward­ing the kids who turn up for camo­gie prac­tice every week with a place on the team for matches, even if that means those with more nat­u­ral abil­ity and less ded­i­ca­tion have to sit on the bench.

“Com­mit­ment and par­tic­i­pa­tion trumps all in the end. If you re­ally love some­thing and you’re com­mit­ted and you’re hun­gry, that mat­ters more than raw tal­ent. The his­tory of sport is full of sto­ries of peo­ple who weren’t the stand-out play­ers when they were young, but who got there through hard work.”

The ex­am­ple of Olympian An­nalise Mur­phy shows that fostering a love of the sport is more im­por­tant than hand­ing out medals, says Treasa Cox of the Ir­ish Sail­ing As­so­ci­a­tion. Mur­phy has said of her­self she is “prob­a­bly not the best sailor in the world. I’m not ex­cep­tional. Ninety-five per cent of the time I’m good, but I’m noth­ing amaz­ing, but then I think five per cent of the time I have man­aged to be bet­ter than all my com­peti­tors.”

Love of sport

“In sail­ing, we be­lieve cre­at­ing a life­long love of the sport is more valu­able than re­sults at a young age. An­nalise suc­ceeded be­cause she was the one who put in the hard graft. The ones who make it in the long term aren’t nec­es­sar­ily the ones who show huge tal­ent early on. You have to de­velop a love for the sport first – and then the re­sults come,” says Cox.

The signs pop­ping up at pitches around the coun­try re­mind­ing spec­ta­tors that “Th­ese are kids. The coaches are vol­un­teers. The ref­er­ees are hu­man. This is not the World Cup” are a re­minder of an­other de­ter­rent: pushy par­ents.

Psy­chother­a­pist Stella O’Mal­ley sym­pa­thises with coaches who might look dimly on “the Mama Bears who in­sist that the coach should play their lit­tle Johnny every week – never mind whether lit­tle Johnny can kick the ball in a straight line or not. The en­tire GAA works by re­ly­ing on peo­ple who are will­ing to con­trib­ute to­wards the par­ish in what­ever way that is needed so that the team suc­ceeds.”

McGrath comes from a fam­ily deeply im- mersed in sport – he and his brother Ken both played for Water­ford, as did their fa­ther, Pat. But he says the only pres­sure the broth­ers felt was what they put on them­selves. “We were al­ways out to try and prove to our fa­ther that we were good enough to play. We al­ways had to im­press him. A lot of par­ents now are push­ing kids to the brink of quit­ting the sport. The re­al­ity is that not ev­ery­body is go­ing to play in­ter­county hurl­ing or premier­ship soc­cer. But not every par­ent wants to ac­cept that.”

At Grey­stones United AFC, the em­pha­sis is on devel­op­ing play­ers of all lev­els, and there are posters around the club stat­ing “we win, we draw, we learn, we never lose”, says Damien Ivory, a coach with the un­der-14 girls’ and un­der-11 boys’ team.

Bal­anced ap­proach

“As a coach my fo­cus is al­ways on de­vel­op­ment rather than win­ning. Win­ning starts to hap­pen by de­fault, but it isn’t as im­por­tant,” he says. “There is a bal­ance, though. As kids get older, it’s im­por­tant to be able to deal with loss and vic­tory, and there is a need to ex­pe­ri­ence real com­pe­ti­tion. That’s why it’s crit­i­cal that they have found the right level to play at when they reach teenage foot­ball.”

The ad­vice of­ten given to par­ents is that kids should do one gym­nas­tics-type ac­tiv­ity, one ath­letic sport and one ball sport. But the re­al­ity is that team sports are not for every child, es­pe­cially the ones who find them­selves stand­ing on the side­lines week af­ter week.

Team sports are not the only way to get the ben­e­fits of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity – just get them do­ing one thing that they love, and you’re al­ready ahead, says Sharry. “The best sport for your child is what­ever works best for them. In­di­vid­ual sports can have all the men­tal and phys­i­cal health ben­e­fits of a team sport.”

For girls in par­tic­u­lar, when they hit their teens, their in­volve­ment in team sports tends to fall off a cliff “right at the time when they would ben­e­fit most”.

“If you can find a sport you en­joy, which is at your level of abil­ity, and you can help the team achieve some­thing, that’s bril­liant. And it doesn’t even have to be a sport. It could be a club ac­tiv­ity like the scouts,” he says.

Sport is im­por­tant to fash­ion de­signer Leigh Tucker, a mother of three daugh­ters, and to her hus­band Oran Heron, a per­sonal trainer. But they have opted for their three daugh­ters ( aged 10, 7 and 5) to do gym­nas­tics and ath­let­ics rather than a team game. “It took us a while to find the right fit, as we are not into medals. At the mo­ment all three do gym­nas­tics eight hours a week, and Lena, the el­dest, also does ath­let­ics twice a week. We found a gym­nas­tics club with an ethos that was the right fit for us: not overly fo­cused on com­pe­ti­tion, with an em­pha­sis on skills, fun, be­ing part of a group and com­mit­ment.

“Our kids are never go­ing to com­pete in­ter­na­tion­ally, but they’re on a high af­ter prac­tice, and we try teach them that’s what the prize is, the feel­ing great.”

An ini­tia­tive be­ing de­vel­oped by the In­ter­na­tional Triathlon Union aims to find a more struc­tured role for less ath­let­i­cally- in­clined kids, says jour­nal­ist Ed Rice. “We need to ex­pand the no­tion of par­tic­i­pa­tion. Our plan is to get the kids who aren’t as ca­pa­ble in­volved in the run­ning and ad­min­is­tra­tion, so they can still ben­e­fit from that sense of worth and com­mu­nity.”

For some chil­dren, it is just a mat­ter of try­ing dif­fer­ent things un­til they find the sport they love. He­len Han­ni­gan re­mains con­vinced there “is a sport for ev­ery­body”. “I played GAA – badly – all through my teens. I was more of a bench warmer, but I en­joyed it and it kept my fitness up. It’s only when I went to col­lege and dis­cov­ered row­ing that I found the sport I was pas­sion­ate about. For me, that’s what sport is about. For years and years, I couldn’t let a day go past with­out get­ting out on the water. I think I’m proof that there is a sport for ev­ery­one – you just have to find it.”

So many kids come home from school, do their home­work, and go straight on to the Xbox or phones and aren’t do­ing enough phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity

O’Tooles and Castle­knock girls un­der-10s teams af­ter a match; Eoghan and He­len Han­ni­gan, who are in­volved in un­der-age coach­ing at Clon­tarf GAA club with their chil­dren Medb and Caelfind.


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