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The one question that helps keep kids in sport

Many teenagers are giving up on sport, just when they need most the physical, social and mental health benefits that sport offers them. Kelly Curr, Sport Development Consultant with Sport NZ, says that by regularly asking your child why they play, you can help keep them in the game. By Kate Barber

Intuitively, we know that sport and physical activity are good for our kids. We want our younger kids to try out different sports as well as be part of a team, and we want our bigger kids to keep playing as they launch into the world of adolescence. 

The rate of depression and anxiety among young Kiwis is on the rise. A study led by the University of Otago (2021) found that the prevalence of teenage depression has more than doubled since the 1980s. And this was conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic, which has likely worsened the picture. 

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These statistics coincide with a decline in the number of Kiwi teenagers participating in sport, says Kelly. 

There is a clear link between physical activity and mental wellbeing. “We often hear of the benefits from a physical health perspective, but there are significant benefits for mental health and broader wellbeing,” says Kelly. “Understanding these benefits is important for parents, especially parents of teenagers. Participation in sport can support wellbeing as well as helping adolescents learn about teamwork and dealing with conflict and disappointment.”

Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis says that participation in sport or active recreation offers young people “an appropriate outlet to be physical, challenged and to work closely with others”. He adds that in such uncertain times, regular physical activity provides predictability. “Because it happens at predictable times and there are predictable roles and relationships, it serves as a positive counter to all the anxiety generated by the current situation.”

Sport is a physical outlet that promotes friendships and supports mental wellbeing. But, for our kids to stick at it, it needs to be enjoyable. 

Kelly says that talking to your child about why they play sport could be one of the best things you do to support their sporting experience, not to mention their mental health. The best way of keeping our kids in sport is through “finding out their why”, says Kelly, and this starts with the question, “What’s fun about playing?”. 

“Fun means different things to different kids. It can mean winning, or mastering new skills, but it can also mean kicking a ball around with mates and not worrying about the score.” Asking this question gives us an insight into our child’s temperament and preferences and invites us to reflect on whether our reasons and aspirations line up with theirs. 

Naturally, we want to provide sporting opportunities that will grow particular strengths and passions we notice in our kids. “However, it is about balance,” says Kelly. “We want to encourage our kids, without pushing too hard. We also want to let them sample different sports, but we don’t need to fill up every afternoon with sport. We need to think about their wellbeing as well as our own.”

For sport or physical activity to play some role in their lives long-term, we need to find out why they play and what fun means to them. Support that, and they’ll be more likely to continue with sport. You’ll be watching their happy faces on the field long after they start high school, and they’ll benefit from the physical challenges, social connections, predictability and stress relief that participation in sport provides. 


Balance is better

Balance is Better is an evidence-based philosophy that supports quality sport experiences for all young people, regardless of ability, needs and motivations. It’s about young people staying involved in sport for life and realising their potential at the right time. As part of their campaign, Sport NZ has compiled a range of resources for parents so that they can best support their child’s growth and development in sport. Find out more at balanceisbetter.org.nz

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