Kōrero: Children and sport

Whārangi 4. Identity and ethos

Ngā whakaahua

For most New Zealand children sport has contributed to their sense of self and how others view them. Since colonial times, to be good at sport has been a way to increase one’s self-esteem and earn the respect of both peers and teachers. To become a member of the first XI (cricket) or first XV (rugby) or the ‘A’ (netball) team at secondary school was a childhood aspiration of many. For children who struggled academically, sport was one way to prove their worth. Special praise was bestowed on the ‘all-rounder’, the child who excelled both at sport and schoolwork.

Rough play

In 1894 a newspaper correspondent expressed concern at the roughness of play at rugby games: ‘Many parents dread the football season coming round; they do not wish to put a stop to their children’s sport, but fear their being disabled, or even killed, on the football field.’ 1 The writer suggested if the violence was not curtailed then mothers would stop their children from playing the game.

In a cultural environment that placed such a high value on sporting performance, being less able could be a humiliating and alienating experience. For the uncoordinated child missing an easy catch, the chubby boy unable to keep up the pace or the body-conscious girl forced to wear revealing sports clothing, sport did little for their sense of self-worth, especially if teased by classmates. For boys who disliked the physicality of sports like rugby, having to play it was a harsh rite of passage. The main alternative to rugby, football (soccer), was considered a less manly game – boys who played it were often teased by their rugby-playing peers for being ‘sissies’.

Levels of engagement

Even children who were poor at playing sport could engage with it in other ways. This included attending sports games as spectators and barracking for a particular team, so becoming part of that team’s wider support base or collective identity. Following the fortunes of a particular star athlete or national teams such as the All Blacks, or watching them on television or online, was another way children and adolescents connected with sports.

McEvedy Shield

Every year athletes from Wellington boys’ high schools Rongotai, St Patrick’s (both Town and Silverstream) and Wellington College keenly compete for the McEvedy Shield. The event is as much about collective college identities as the particular athletes and events. All four colleges attend the meet at Newtown Stadium and shout and chant themselves hoarse cheering their athletes on. The college with most points at the end of the day wins the trophy. The boys from that college then erupt in wild celebration.

Competition and inclusion

From the 1980s the performance ethos of children’s sport was challenged by research that showed an over-emphasis on competition before basic skills had been mastered could lead to poorer performances and loss of interest in sporting activities. Researchers argued that children should be able to choose what sports they played and be given the opportunity to reach the highest level of their ability. There was a shift within schools (especially primary schools) to promote sporting programmes that had less emphasis on winning and more on setting realistic challenges that children could successfully meet. In this way more of them would benefit from sport and continue to enjoy it into adulthood. Young children began to play on smaller grounds, with reduced or lowered goal posts, and some games were modified to better suit children’s needs. One example was miniball, a variant of basketball.

However, critics ridiculed this child-centred approach for emphasising participation over winning and performance. This led a number of secondary schools to set up sports academies, where talented athletes could receive extra coaching and training to reach their sporting goals. Some sports clubs also provided special programmes for their most promising athletes.

Both approaches have benefited children and adolescents: the child-centred model better supported those who struggled to participate in sport, while the performance model enabled those with sporting talent to better realise their potential.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Poverty Bay Herald, 3 May 1894, p. 3. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ben Schrader, 'Children and sport - Identity and ethos', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/children-and-sport/page-4 (accessed 23 September 2019)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 5 Sep 2013