What to do with a child who hates sports

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School holidays are over and parents can stop nagging their kids to ‘get off technology and go outside and play’.  A request usually ignored (not least because it comes from adults on their own technology while working from home).

Last week, after being ignored for the gazillianth time, I typed a frustrated tweet asking what do you do with a kid who hates all sport and is hard to get moving.  Responses came in suggesting everything from encouragement to bribery to force. My favourites involved paying a child $1 for each block they run, pretending you need something from the shop urgently and building a pretend Minecraft axe for outdoor use. I’ve tried them all except the cash prize – but I did attempt to jog in front of one child while holding up a chocolate biscuit in front of their nose.  They shuffled only slightly speedier. 

My son rides his skateboard and scooter, wheels on his heelies and chops wood.  He even does a hip hop class to raise his heart rate.  But these involve short bursts of activity. Not organised, rule based sport with whistles, coaches, sponsored uniforms and training.

As an Aussie not that obsessed with sport, I sometimes feel a stranger I my own land. But I do see what netball and gymnastics did for me as a child and what they do for my daughter. 

The problem is that my son hates all organised sport. 

So I ask: should kids like him be forced to do one?

We’ve all heard the arguments in favour of sport.  It’s good for heart, lungs, bones, brains and coordination.  It builds camaraderie, team spirit, togetherness, relationships, cooperation, sense of belonging and an awareness of group dynamics.  Some say it even builds character.  Studies in the U.S state that girls who do high school sport are 92% less likely to take drugs, 87% less likely to get pregnant and 3 times more likely to graduate. 

Usually in Australia sporty kids are well liked, often revered and frequently powerful. They are more likely to be leaders, sports captains and have a cache of confidence. 

But what about for those kids who shrink from sport?  The ones who are either not coordinated, small or just not into it.

What if they can’t handle the pressure and the aggression that can occur on the field? What if they are simply not motivated by winning, a medal on a mantelpiece, orange segments at half time, or even a goal? What if they feel sport puts their weakness on display and feel harassed when they let their teammates down?  We all know or have a story about not being picked, or about getting a ball to the head or having a humiliation on the field.

Given sport is about resilience, perhaps we should force them to push through and learn to deal with their distress.  ‘Suck it up princesses’ as the parental critics say.  By forcing them to keep going, it may help them build their skills at setting goals, self-discipline, patience and persistence.  Or it may just lead to a lot of pain and dejection.

There are certainly many ways of getting fit and strong.  But perhaps there are other ways kids and adults can develop their group skills.  They can build team dynamics by being in a band.  They can learn to cooperate playing a computer game.  They can develop teamwork in a drama group.  They can learn to lose with dignity when they fail in the classroom and learn to celebrate with humility when they win at monopoly.

While I am thankful my children do PE at school even when they hate it, I’m not sure I want them required to play a competitive sport. Since hosting the Olympics, Britain has been planning to do just that. As a parent I understand the attraction of schools that force all children on the field and require the A team to cheer on the Fs. But the child within me shrinks from such blanket rules of engagement.  We have an obligation to make kids move and do things they don’t like but you can’t force a feeling of pride, group bonding and an enjoyment of getting out on the field.

Clearly it’s about finding a sport that suits the child; that they don’t merely bear to do but be excited by.  I’ve been told to get my child to try judo, martial arts and golf.  Archery is now rising in popularity thanks to the Hunger Games.

Childhood should be about trying lots of different things and not necessarily sticking to any of them.  After all, we change enormously over our lives.  Just look at me, I’ve gone from loving sport to hating it to being obsessed with a TV show about an American high school football team (Friday Night Lights is a Daily Life job requirement).  Who knows? My son could end up as a champion bowls player.  In the meantime, I don’t have to stand freezing, dripping and dying for a coffee beside a sodden field. 

Perhaps he and I win at something after all.

 

36 comments

  • Children who hate sport should be encouraged. Indication of a sensitive and thoughtful disposition.

    Commenter
    Barry
    Date and time
    April 29, 2014, 8:39AM
    • Really? Based on what?

      Commenter
      Public Joe
      Date and time
      April 29, 2014, 11:16AM
    • "What to do with a child who hates sports/"

      Nothing....as parents have done for years, try and get them into non-sports activities and enjoy the fact you aren't driving them around town on a Saturday

      Commenter
      Carstendog
      Location
      Here
      Date and time
      April 29, 2014, 12:51PM
    • I'm not exactly sure what your comment means. They should be encouraged into sport or they should be encouraged in other endeavours?

      I'm a bit torn on this topic. As a kid I hated team sports. I was smaller than most of the other guys and I used to get hurt a lot.

      But my dad forced me to play. After turning about 13, I filled out a little and it became apparent that I was actually quite athletic and good at sport. I started to enjoy it, even came to love it.

      I don't know that I advocate "forcing" a kid to do anything, but the simple fact is that I may have grown up thinking I hated sports had my father not made me do it.

      I think Sarah has the right idea, the beneficial skills from sport can probably be developed in other ways; drama, art, or non contact sports as well. Maybe introducing the child to a low or non-contact sport to begin with and see if their confidence and engagement grows as they get older.

      For parents I think the most important thing is to give children exposure to a wide range of potential extra curricular activities and then encourage the child to engage with one or two that they clearly enjoy.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 29, 2014, 1:30PM
  • I hated sports as a kid. Could be cause I was shorter than the others and tend to duck away from balls rather than trying to catch them - it's hard to enjoy something you're consistently bad at. But also, I found ball sports boring. Partially because everybody assumes that everyone already knows the rules, and the differences between similar games, (e.g. touch football and AFL, netball and basketball) so the rules were never properly explained and I didn't really know what I was meant to be doing most of the time. It was mainly an exercise in staying out of the way of bigger and more confident kids.

    But there's a big, BIG difference between hating team sports, and hating exercise - and we did plenty of that. I liked dancing, running hurdles, throwing javelins, learning judo and boxing, even doing aerobics. All that stuff was fine, and fun, and seemed like a good idea to me because I was learning some sort of skill or building up my strength, instead of half-heartedly jogging around after a ball on the periphery of the game, not really knowing or caring what was going on and counting down the minutes till I could stop faking it.

    Let's face it - some kids just don't like team-based ball sports, and probably never really will. For them, I'd agree with the suggestion of trying different fitness activities that combine individual and group practice, e.g. martial arts, dance, little athletics, swimming etc. Cub scouts is also a great way of getting kids outside, dirty and tired without coaches and whistles.

    Commenter
    Red Pony
    Date and time
    April 29, 2014, 8:59AM
    • I agree Red Pony. I hated PE at school - I loathe team/ball sports and was incredibly uncoordinated at them. I remember one term when we had to learn the rules of field hockey, waterpolo and touch football and questions about the rules were on our midyear exam. I couldn't believe how stupid and boring it was. Why couldn't they have at least set an assignment where we researched a sport of our own choosing? It would be more likely to encourage less athletic types to find something that sparked their interest.

      The most ridiculous part of all of this is that I was always athletic and competitive - I did gymnastics at a state level for several years before taking up springboard diving, and as an adult I am a snow skiing instructor and race coach. I learnt more about biomechanics, sport nutrition and fitness in this vocation that I love than I ever really did in PE.

      I'm all for PE in schools, but I think the curriculum could be a little more diverse and geared to accommodate students who are not your typical football/netball types. Many students thrive in more individual sports such as fencing, and even if there is not a school team or local team for them to join, learning about it for enjoyment would probably help improve attitudes towards exercise.

      Commenter
      Lily
      Date and time
      April 29, 2014, 10:36AM
    • @lily I am not sure what your source of information is, but at our public school the PE activities are diverse, interesting and (for my son who is now in Year 3, and hence his fourth year of doing it) a very small component of what I would call traditional team sports. It has included movement, fitness and stretching, gymnastics, yoga, hand/eye/ball skill games (including catching and kicking, tunnel ball and the like. It has also included (in an age-appropriate fashion) information on health, eating habits etc.

      Commenter
      It already is ...
      Location
      St Leonards
      Date and time
      April 29, 2014, 12:06PM
    • @ It already is

      Perhaps times have changed, or your kid goes to a very well-resourced school, but Lily's experience rings very true for me. PE and Sport at primary school usually meant touch football, continuous cricket, netball or the like. High school had more options, but you had to get in early if you wanted to avoid being stuck on a hockey field.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      April 29, 2014, 1:39PM
    • All sensible children hate organised sports.

      Commenter
      Sigh
      Date and time
      April 29, 2014, 2:08PM
  • Don't force him to do something he does want too. Yes sport has lots of great benefits aside from the fitness aspect but when kids aren't into it or good at it it has massive negatives. He clearly gets the exercise he needs from skateboarding, dancing (which is a sport BTW) so maybe try encouraging other activities which teach social skills, team work, problem solving, etc like scouts or something.

    Commenter
    Sammy
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    April 29, 2014, 9:08AM

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