It’s 8.30am on a Sunday morning in Melbourne. I can see my breath. The grass crunches under my feet due to an Antarctic level of frost. I can’t feel my toes, but I’m elated. I’m jumping up and down like a fool because my son kicked his first ever goal for his AFL team.
I went into the under eights footy experience with zero expectations because my son has never been the sporty type. He’s the type of kid that’s interested in lots of things, and it shifts from week to week, but sport has never been a big priority. He’s a casual athlete and by proxy I’m a casual supporter.
When I speak to other parents, they share tales of their footy mad kid who goes to bed hugging a ball instead of a teddy bear. Mid game, I can hear parents cheering from the sidelines and it’s obvious some dads are way more into the game than some kids, which is why they have signs posted around that say: ‘Don’t be THAT parent’.
But in the aftermath of the goal, I look around and see the support my son gets. His teammates rally around him, other parents cheer and the coaches offer the biggest high fives I’ve ever seen. It’s a great moment but then I realise my son would have got the same level of support if he had missed; this could be his first and last ever goal. For the rest of the season there were lots of misses but the support never wavered.
Team spirit matters despite the ups and downs of sport. To quote Coach Gordon Bombay from The Mighty Ducks: “A team isn’t a bunch of kids out to win; a team is something you belong to, something you feel, something you have to earn.”
A sense of belonging and good role modeling is key to getting kids interested in sport and other group activities.
It starts with you
Sport is everywhere and kids may pick up on your attitude towards it. Be aware of your comments and the emphasis you place on the merits of sports.
Raising Children recommends being a ‘good sporting role model’. Create a positive, supportive attitude toward sport when you play together or watch a game. Discuss athletes you admire who don’t always win but exemplify what it means to be a good sport.
I’m a Melbourne Demons supporter and rode the high of the 2021 AFL premiership after the team spent a long time in the weeds. But when the Demons had a rocky 2022 season it was a good time to discuss with my son that winning isn’t everything. The premiership team can lose — they will lose — and that’s okay because they tried their best.
Prioritise enjoyment and participation of sport, both on and off the field, over winning at all costs. Your attitude towards sports may be reflected by your child, so create a positive foundation.
If you want your child to play sport, you will have to show up. Authors of The Power of Showing Up, Daniel J Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, recommend the four S’s: safe, seen, soothed and secure.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Bryson observes that being the perfect parent is not the aim.
“I think, as parents, we’re so fearful that we’re not doing right by our children; we really wanted to share the research so they can just relax a little bit and really enjoy their children,” Bryson said.
“We don’t have to be perfect; we can just be present.”
That’s how I found myself in the middle of the goals one weekend. I volunteered to be a goal umpire even though I’d never been a goal umpire before. After the first goal I waved the flags to signal six points, but the flag fell off the stick. I then spent the next quarter trying to get the flag back on while trying to call each goal or behind correctly (it’s a lot harder than it looks).
I loved the role because it’s one of the best seats on the field, but it also sent a message to my son: if you’re going to play, I’m going to participate the best I can.
Siegel and Bryson add another layer to ‘showing up’.
“… you can interpret it like ‘every recital, I gotta show up physically.’ But it’s really a state of mind we call presence,” says Siegel.
“It’s that you’re available in awareness, receptive to moments to connect with your child, able to stay with them at the moment when they are feeling distressed and uncomfortable. A parent who distracts a child or tells them not to feel that way would be the opposite of showing up. So showing up means they are known by me, and they know I have their back.”
Kids will be more likely to be interested in sport if they know they’ve got your support. Show up and find ways to play an active role in the team. Be flexible and mix it up each week. Most kids’ sports offer a variety of volunteer roles for parents that operate on a roster.
Find the right fit
Just because a sport is available doesn’t mean it’s the right one for your child. Be intuitive to your child’s likes and abilities and match them with a sport accordingly. If they give it a try and it’s a fizzer, that’s okay.
There are plenty of entry-level team sports or modified sports for kids to give them a taste. Modified sports offer smaller fields, smaller teams and rules that suit the age group. Think Auskick for AFL, Miniroos for soccer and Hot Shots for tennis.
Often, matches at this level don’t keep score because the emphasis is on participation.
It’s tradition in the AFL for the winning team to sing the team song after a win. During my son’s season they sung the team song after every game because there was no winner or loser. In fact, most of the kids were more excited to sing the song than to play the game.
Trial different sports and see if one takes hold. If it doesn’t, there’s many more options to explore.
Think outside the pitch
Not every sport involves a team. Some kids won’t want to play a team sport no matter how hard you try. Try to avoid any pressure because the goal is to get them active, and their sense of team spirit can manifest in different ways.
Look for activities that get your child active and could create a pathway to a sport, especially ones you may not consider as ‘sport’ in the traditional sense. Get creative with it; bushwalks, surfing/bodyboarding, skateboarding, aerobics, gymnastics, and dancing are all great ways to get kids active.
Another option is community groups that encourage social skills and participation, such as Girl Guides or Scouts.
Enjoy the ride
Unless your kid is picked as the next Michael Jordan at a young age, a lot of kids’ sport is going to be a little scrappy, chaotic and mundane. But it’s your kid out there having a go and it’s one of the most incredible sights — even when they run the wrong way or pick their nose.
Create an environment where your child is open to sport and enjoy the ride.
Keep your kids happy on and off the field
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