Why do so many teenagers drop out of sport? Research by Sport England in 2002 suggests a significant decline in the proportion of young people who say they enjoy participating in sport upon reaching secondary school age. How are we to explain this shift from sporty youngsters to sedentary adults?
Psychologists argue that by the time young people reach secondary school their view of sport and, more importantly, their perception of their competence in sport, is already established - in other words, by this age you believe you are either good at sport or you are not.
This strongly suggests that the primary school years are the most formative of all. While you can take up and become proficient in sport at any time in your life, the most fruitful method of driving up participation rates in sport is to ensure positive experiences at the early learning stages, to hopefully guarantee high sporting self-esteem throughout teenage life. How then do we envisage developing a more effective and successful introduction to sport at the early ages?
All sports are made up of fundamental movement skills such as running, jumping, striking and catching.
Introducing an intricate skill, however, - such as a backhand in tennis or the jump shot in basketball - at a very early age is potentially overwhelming. Sports-specific skills are complex movement patterns that need to be broken down and introduced progressively.
To attempt to introduce a complex sports-specific skill to a young person who is yet to master the fundamentals of movement is akin to teaching Pythagoras's Theorem to someone who cannot count. This inability to effectively execute sports skills leads to feelings of frustration and low self-perception. On the other hand, to omit any instruction at all by simply introducing a game and allowing it to develop its natural course is equally as unproductive.
A more logical, step-by-step approach to teaching the fundamentals of movement before advancing to more complex motor patterns would establish the right foundations for any child to then specialise in sport at a later stage. A common misconception is that sporting ability is only naturally acquired or genetic, and is therefore fixed rather than changeable.
Understanding that this sports literacy needs to be taught, rather than just developing naturally, is central to understanding that sporting ability is controllable rather than predetermined.
The shift from theory into practice has started. This notion of deliberate play is by no means a new concept. Istvan Bayli's Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model, introduced to the UK sports system in 2000, advocates a six-stage approach to sporting development, the first stage of which is referred to as the FUNdamentals phase. This FUNdamentals phase specifically promotes the idea of deliberate play as the appropriate environment in which to develop agility, balance and co-ordination, under the term multi-skill.
A multi-skill coach should not only be able to set up fun games and activities for appropriate age groups, but also be equipped with the knowledge and skills to adapt these games to focus specifically on balance, agility and co-ordination. The transition from a coaching style that is generally directive and prescriptive to one that is more creative and flexible, that guides and empowers participants, is key to effective multi-skill coaching.
Numerous organisations are seeking to implement the LTAD model. Many national governing bodies of sport have put together an LTAD framework, and adapted their player pathways, the path a young person would ideally follow in that particular sport from playground to podium, ensuring that young people do not specialise too early.
The Youth Sports Trust, through the PE, School Sport and Club Links (PESSCL) strategy and the national network of School Sports Partnerships, are putting into effect a national Multi-Skill Clubs Programme, in which out-of-hours multi-skill clubs are set up at key stage 2 to introduce young people to the fundamentals of movement and fundamental sport skills, and therefore develop their physical literacy.
The shift in attitudes to sporting ability is our greatest challenge today.
Young people have been turned away from sport, not as a result of choice, but of perceived failure or incompetence. Developing physical literacy is a step towards presenting young people with real and informed choices. The basic concept is inspiring, that we are free as human beings to mould our sporting ability, rather than condemned to the body into which we were born.
Paul Bickerton is a coach development officer for scUK covering Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. l scUK is a charity dedicated to developing coaching throughout the UK.
Tel: 0113 274 4802 www.sportscoachuk.org