Creating Future Sporting Stars in the UK – How Do We Ensure Our Children Are Active?

Team GB’s medal hauls at the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012 and 2016 should have inspired members of the younger generation to start their athletic careers by taking up youth sports.

However, a recent report has shown that British children are far less active than many of their overseas counterparts. So what can we do to ensure that participation levels in children’s sport improve and that Team GB will continue to win Olympic medals in future?

The Decline of Youth Sports – How Unfit Are the UK’s Children?

Earlier this year, as our leading athletes made their final preparations for Rio, we discussed the fact that, although some sporting bodies had seen increases in enquiries due to London 2012, the Games hadn’t been as inspirational as the organisers had hoped.

According to the Telegraph, figures presented to the International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health by an international alliance of experts this month suggested that, when childhood activity levels in 38 countries are compared, children in England, Scotland and Wales are falling short.

The research showed that only 22 percent of 11 to 15-year-old boys and 15 percent of 11 to 15-year-old girls in England take part in at least an hour’s moderate intensity physical activity each day – the amount recommended by the government. Figures were similar for children in Wales, while Scottish children were even less active.

In comparison, in Slovenia, the top-ranked country in the survey, about eighty percent of boys and seventy percent of girls aged between six and 18 take part in moderate activity for at least an hour per day.

In response, not-for-profit health organisation, UK Active, called for Ofsted to rate schools on the fitness of their pupils. “Until we measure physical literacy in the same way as maths and English, we’ll be powerless to stop this alarming rot,” the group’s research director, Dr Steven Mann, told reporters.

School Sports – What Inspires Children to Get Involved?

According to Sport England, participation in sport declines with age. Therefore, while the Government invests £150 million per year in primary school sports, even if children are engaged early, it’s a challenge to keep them interested.

Sport England’s Youth Insight Pack (2014) contains a wealth of information suggesting that the key to engaging older children and young adults in sport is to understand their individual needs. Not everyone enjoys competitive sport, for example, while some people prefer individual pursuits to team-based activities. The research also suggests that, as youngsters’ reasons for participating in sporting activity often change as they get older, a flexible approach is required.

This means ensuring that young people have a wide range of competitive and non-competitive activities to choose from, and understanding that their participation levels may not be consistent over the years.

Last week, children’s sport hit the headlines when the results of a survey organised by the UK’s Girls’ Schools Association showed that 59 percent of sports directors in independent girls’ schools believed that non-competitive fitness activities, like dance and yoga, were as important as traditional sports.

“Increasingly we have seen a move towards individual pursuits, a drive towards well being and health and an ever-increasing range of activities,” Caroline Jordan, the GSA’s president, stated.

Competitive yet non-traditional youth sports, such as cheerleading, have also become more popular in UK schools and universities in recent years, suggesting that young people are looking for new, exciting activities to try.

Moving From Youth Sports to Global Success – Other Significant Factors

Will ensuring that all kids take part in more school sports make any difference to the number of stars that we produce, however, or are there other issues involved?

Sport England’s research suggests that young people are more likely to participate in sports if their peers do. Many stars, like Andy Murray, also come from sporting families. An interest in sports, therefore, isn’t solely dependent on whether or not a child is influenced positively at school.

Lack of funding is an ongoing problem for state schools and young people from lower income families too. A disproportionate number of Olympians were educated at private schools (although this is improving), and while elite athletes benefit from lottery funding, excessive training, equipment and competition costs often mean that other talented youngsters are unable to progress as far as they could.

Speaking to the Guardian, a swimming coach, who did not want to be named, recently said:

“Seventy-five per cent of our drop-out is because they can’t afford to do the sport anymore. The Olympic legacy is a joke. Swimmers at the top, on the whole, are from middle-class backgrounds.”

What strategies do you think could be used to encourage more children to take up sport? Leave a comment below.