Regular exercise is well-known to have a myriad of benefits. From improved work-place success in the young adult to a lower risk of coronary artery disease in the elderly, regular exercise is good for all ages. However, this is an adult notion – no child participates in sport to avoid a heart attack. Still, the behaviour of adults and the decisions they make significantly influences the sports participation of children.

Here are some check points for parents with regard to children and sport.

  • Parents’ attitude to regular exercise significantly determines the future exercise participation of their children. In fact, the example set by parents has already established the future attitudes of their children by the time they are 10 – 12 years old. Interestingly, it appears that the mother’s example is more important than that of the father.
  • Similarly, the sports participation of children is a significant predictor of young adults’ participation in sports and physical exercise. A study published in the Youth and Society journal in 2004 showed that adolescents who play a sport are eight times more likely to be active as young adults, than those adolescents who don’t play sport.
  • Over the past few decades there has been a substantial decline in sports participation by children in the developed world. A study from The Aspen Institute in America, found that amongst the primary causes were the parents’ concerns about the risk of injury, the quality of coaches, the cost and time commitment required, and the emphasis of winning over having fun. While some of these parental concerns may be valid, the net result is potentially harmful to their children.
  • The era of informal play by children appears to be all but gone, a fact confirmed by research done in the USA in 2010 by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. In addition to the numerous psychosocial benefits of so-called ‘free play’, this form of exercise has been shown to produce higher levels of physical activity than organized sports. Unfortunately, after extra academic lessons, music tuition, organized sports training and vast amounts of homework, children simply don’t have the time to play anymore.
  • Organised, competitive sport certainly has its merits, but it more often than not precludes the active involvement of the family. The International Federation of Sports Medicine issued a position statement in 1997 emphasising the value of the family exercising together. Clearly it is not the norm for whole families to participate in the organized sports common in South Africa, such as soccer, rugby and cricket. While parents may appear to participate by cheering their child’s team from the side-lines, some would argue that this simply provides an example of non-activity. In addition, given that only an extremely small percentage of school athletes will play organised sport at a representative level, the emphasis on this form of sport seems inappropriate.

Correcting this situation isn’t easy, but perhaps adults make things more complicated than they need to be. If the goal of good parenting is to raise a healthy and successful young adult, then perhaps parents should allow children more time to just play, they should provide a better example by exercising (with the whole family) and they should be less concerned about for which team their child plays.                                                                                                                                                Dr Mike Marshall   MBChB (UCT) BSc Med (Hons) Sport Science (UCT)

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