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Why we need to tackle early specialisation

26 February 2019

The move by the North Harbour Rugby to disband its under-14 rep team has created significant debate. Sport NZ has backed the union for what we see as a positive and courageous move. Our Sport Development Consultant, Alex Chiet, explains why.

North Harbour Rugby has taken a bold but important step in revamping the way it runs kids’ rugby – not just removing its under-14 rep team, which has grabbed the headlines, but also making other important changes like introducing development opportunities for all kids and expanding non-contact Rippa Rugby for kids up to age 13.

Some people have challenged this. That’s good, change should be challenged, but there are some big issues here that need to be addressed so that people understand why this has happened and why it’s so important.

New Zealanders' participation in sport is following a global trend – downwards. Less active young Kiwis means less kids getting the most of the healthy, social, fun elements sport has to offer. It means less chance of our youngsters having a life-long love of being active, and it means a smaller pool of talent from which we can nurture and develop Kiwis towards elite sport and, for some, world championship or Olympic glory.

To address this, we need sports to adapt – to provide quality experiences that are relevant to the needs of today’s kids and which keep them wanting to play. What North Harbour Rugby has done with Rippa Rugby is a great example, providing more kids with a choice between contact and non-contact rugby, and changing-up their approach to player development so that more kids benefit.

But why cut an intermediate age rep team?

In 2016 Sport NZ released a Talent Plan – a guide for sports bodies to help them keep more young people involved in sport and to develop, in the most appropriate way, those with future potential. It’s a guide to shape decisions exactly like this one.

It wasn't something we took lightly. We studied best practice and lessons from around the world, spoke to many former athletes and coaches, and worked with a huge number of sporting bodies. Rugby included.

Through this we found that three commonly held beliefs simply don't hold true.

Many think early specialisation is good. Choose a sport when you're young and give it everything you've got. It works for a few, but not for the majority. Burn out, over-use injuries and declining motivation are too often the reality.

When we're encouraging kids to be too competitive too soon, we're denying them the opportunity to establish active lifestyles for life. A lot of kids are in love with these sports and suddenly they no longer want to play because they don't make a top team at an early age, or even worse there is nowhere for them to play as opportunities are only offered to the so called talented kids.

Rather than focusing on one sport, we need young people to try different sports so that they build transferable skills and keeps their minds fresh. Most elite athletes play a range of sports when they are young, and many do not focus just on the sport they excel in until their late teenage years.

Next, too many people believe successful athletes focus on winning. I've coached youth football and, sure, I've seen kids counting the goals in games where the score is not being tracked. As I coach, I'm happy for them to do that, but I'm focusing them on the importance of development. Things like remembering what we practiced, trying new things and reinforcing positive character traits like being a good team mate, and working hard rather than be concerned if they win or lose.

The third belief we’re tackling is that childhood success leads to adult success. We've also seen the videos of the young Richie McCaw. No one can question his greatness, but the reality is that everyone is different. I don't just mean average, good or great – progress in sport is not a linear thing. Kids have different motivations and develop and reach their potential at different times, and we need to give them time to do that. Our research also clearly shows a distinct lack of transition from success when athletes are juniors to success when they are adults.

That's why North Harbour Rugby has made a great call.

At under-14 level it's needle in a haystack stuff when it comes to picking future elite adult performers. Sure, there are some All Blacks who were on the pathway to greatness before high school came calling. But most weren't – and aren't – and it's another reality that kids who feel the pressure of making rep teams (or the failure of not) are more likely to turn away from sport.

Save the pressure until kids are older – and give clubs, coaches and sports more time to keep all young people involved and identify their future stars. And until then, like North Harbour Rugby, spread your development focus as wide as possible so as many kids as possible reap the rewards.

The more kids we keep playing rugby – or netball or football or basketball – the more active and healthy their society will be when they're adults. Keep more kids playing and our talent pool will be deeper. Give sports more time to judge that talent, so they develop the widest group of athletes for the longest time.

I applaud North Harbour Rugby for what they have done. Reducing the pressure on 13-year old kids, providing more choices and development opportunities for more young rugby players. These can only be a good things – for kids’ development and for the sport.

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