David Cameron's opportunism was predictable – but the professional inadequacy of his comments and proposals to introduce competitive team sports in primary schools beggars belief (Report, 1 August). It runs against all known research on child development. Children are not ready for traditional team sports until perhaps the last year of primary school at best. What he is pleased to call an "all must have prizes" culture is experienced professionals ensuring that all primary children develop confidence in their physical identity, each optimally developing individual physical skills and coordination.
What is needed is the re-establishment of funding for specialist PE advisers to help primary teachers to develop and deliver a properly balanced, challenging and broadly based programme of physical education – not half-cocked efforts to offer a prep school games programme.
Cameron and Michael Gove propose to ignore the overwhelming consensus of professional educationist advice and proven empirical child development science to pursue damaging personal hobby horses and impose them on a profession that actually does know better.
St Albans, Hertfordshire
• So the prime minister has nothing against Indian dancing but does not consider it to be sport. Has he ever seen an Indian dance performance? Has he not appreciated the poise, balance, coordination, strength and stamina of the performers? It may not be an Olympic sport – but it surely compares with artistic gymnastics and synchronised swimming.
•David Cameron wants competitive sport in schools. This is not surprising: competitive sport is elitist. Olympic Games commentaries give the firm impression that all non-medal-winners have failed. Even silver and bronze winners are referred to as "failing to secure gold".
While children should be given every opportunity to excel in whatever they pursue, be it academic, sporting or artistic interest, it is much more important that they enjoy doing things. Yes, they need challenges to try new things, but so many children are discouraged by the stigma of failure. Ask kids to make up two teams for playground football and watch the inept and unfit being rejected.
A quarter of our children are obese. We need to encourage them to participate in activity that will help them get healthy and live longer. Money shouldn't be spent on training the elite for a handful of medals while local playing fields are sold off and swimming pools closed down.
• Presumably, David Cameron is thinking of the 1950s and 1960s, when such enthusiasms for competitive school sports prevailed. Graduates of such competition in schools sports went on to represent Britain at the Olympics, achieving the dizzy heights of 20 medals in 1960, before declining to 18 in each of 1964 and 1968 and 13 in 1972. The highest we achieved in the medal table in that period was 10th. In the more recent era, with its emphasis on participation, the British team has performed rather better. Britain won 48 medals and fourth place in 2008, and more than 60 and third place in 2012.
• The government is right that certain values are best developed through participation in competitive team sports. Evidence can be seen every Sunday morning of the football season in parks up and down the country as players of not much more than primary-school age emulate their heroes by spitting, swearing, arguing with the referee and abusing teammates for the slightest error. All this while being spurred on from the touchline by inadequate coaches and parents keen to bathe in the reflected glory of their embryonic Joey Bartons and John Terrys. I'm with the prime minister – you can't get that from Indian dance.
• Competitive sport in primary schools will make no difference to the already engaged child; but, surely, compulsion will lead to increased truancy? Running away may not be the intended exercise.
Young athletes are not pint-sized professional athletes. They don't earn performance -based bonuses. They aren't going to be paid a dime more for scoring three goals per game than for scoring three goals in the entire season, or for being on a championship team instead of the team in the cellar.
So we need to treat them as kids, not major leaguers.
Fun tops reasons for sports participation
In an oft-cited study, the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University asked ten thousand junior high and high school students to list their twelve top reasons for participating in sports. At the top of the list for both boys and girls was "to have fun." Girls ranked winning as the least important reason; boys rated winning eighth.
A recent study by researchers at George Washington University1 reported similar results. 9 of 10 kids said "fun" is the main reason they participate. When asked to define fun, they offered up 81 reasons- and ranked "winning" at number 48. Young girls gave it the lowest ratings.
Ask kids about what they want to get out of sports, and the vast majority will say competitive games in which everyone plays and has fun. Given a choice between fun and winning, most would say having fun. They would rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench of a winning team. Believe it or not, this attitude persists through high school, where you would think that kids would begin to value winning over playing. Three out of four high school athletes, regardless of gender, would still prefer to play and lose than sit and win (although twice as many boys than girls said winning was essential for an enjoyable sports experience.
Children aren't born competing; it's something they learn. The best thing we can do for our kids, as parents and coaches, is to keep the amount of competition in youth sports from becoming excessive, to make having fun and learning the sport as important, if not more important than winning, especially for younger children. They will have a lifetime of competition soon enough.
Fun and athletic success
It is a myth that fun has to be sacrificed if a child is to succeed at sports. Indeed, the only way an athlete will continue to play sports - regardless of level of ability - is if he or she is having fun. Athletes have to practice hard to reach an elite level. If it all work and no play, they simply won't keep playing. Success is determined by the player's own desire to succeed, which comes from a love of the game.
When children are having fun they are more relaxed and better able to learn. A July 2004 Harris Interactive Youth Query of eight-to eighteen- year-olds found that most quit playing at thirteen or fourteen and that the number-one reason they did, cited by four out of ten, was because they stopped having fun. They survey found that the decision to quit had less to do with that boy's or girl's own skills - or lack of skills - than with pressure from adults who acted as if each game was the seventh game of the World Series and the child's need to preserve a positive self-image.A survey conducted for the Women's Sports Foundation by Harris Interactive of 2,185 third- through 12th-grade girls and boys confirmed these findings: the number one reason for dropping out of sports, cited by 38% of girls and 39% of boys, was "not having fun."
Competition and collaboration
As children grow, mature, and improve their skills in playing a particular sport, they begin to see a pattern of successes and failures. Trained coaches call this "self-discovery," and it is a very important part of the learning process. Parents should encourage it. Youth players need the freedom to experiment in practice and games, to take risks, to be creative. If winning is the only measure of "success," such experimentation is stifled and player development stunted. A successful competition is one where every player on both teams contributes, does his best, and respects his teammates, his opponents, and the rules.
While encouraging this learning process, keep in mind:
- If you weren't at your child's game or practice, ask, "Tell me about your game" and "Did you and your team have fun today?" instead of "Did you win?" or "How many goals did you score?" Asking your child an open-ended question or whether he had fun invites a response and is more likely to lead to further conversation than asking whether he won because it shows that you are concerned about what matters most to him: having fun.
- In talking with your son or daughter about the sport they are playing, emphasize the strongest aspect of their game and the new skills they are learning. Recount for them the play in which you saw them demonstrate that new skill. This is the type of positive reinforcement that helps your son or daughter to appreciate the new skills they have learned and how to sharpen them.
Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports(HarperCollins) by Brooke de Lench.
Sabo, D. and Veliz, P. (2008). Go Out and Play: Youth Sports in America. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.
Visek, Amanda J. et al. Fun Integration Theory: Towards Sustaining Children and Adolescents Sport Participation. J Phys Activity & Health. 2014.
Updated February 20, 2015.