Chris Bonett, Senior consultant to the Parliamentary Secretary for Youth, Sport and Voluntary Organisations

There can be several factors that may lead children not to engage in a sporting activity, or even worse start practising a sport and then stop after some time. It is very easy to point fingers at sports clubs and associations and say that these are run in an amateur manner or stating that restrictions on player movement (like in the case of football) is making our kids lose faith in the sporting system and leave sports all together.

I believe this is a very short-sighted assessment of the situation. Probably a deeper look will show that the reasons that lead children not to engage in or abandon sporting activity may be much more than the naked eye can see.

It is safe to say that this is not an easy time for our children to grow up. Technological progress and the instant connectivity of the global village have increased the demand for immediate response and rapid results. Children’s growth has not been exempted from this expectation of immediacy.

 Especially in our country, the ‘obligation’ being placed on children by their parents to succeed at school is leading children not to enjoy the most beautiful period of their lives. According to some, they cannot afford to ‘waste’ time in sport and other activities, as academic failure would mean that the parents did not raise the children as they should have. This is complete hogwash.

Children, are not being allowed to see sport as something which is total fun

Another contributor to a decrease in the number of children engaging in sporting activity may be the fact that today some parents are not being patient enough. It is expected that children are born as adults and should behave as such. Therefore some parents, instead of listening to their children and give them the attention they deserve, are resorting to quick-fixes when these don’t behave properly.

These quick-fixes come in the form of a touch-screen, and can literally quiet kids for hours. This ‘solution’ is producing a generation of children who have no idea how to interact with other children (except through social media) and who are not being taught the basic life skills that our parents have patiently taught us. This is also contributing to the creation of a sedentary generation.

Of course, parents are not the only contributors to this kind of society. Sometimes it is also our fault as sports administrators have over the years adopted the wrong strategy on how to develop our grassroots in the various sporting disciplines. Indeed, in most sporting disciplines the focus has been solely on winning and from the early ages, children are being straight-jacketed into training regimes that are not focused on fun in practising sport (as they should), but rather geared to instil a mentality that if they don’t work hard enough they will also be failures in the field of sport.

This is discouraging children, who are not being allowed to see sport as something which is total fun. Mistakes should be allowed, and the primary focus should be the children’s well-being, the creation of friendships. Moreover, in the case of team-sports, the all-important lessons in teamwork and how to learn the altruistic traits of camaraderie and sacrificing yourself for your friends, are invaluable contributors to a healthy and strong society. These can all be reasons why youths and children may be shunning sports clubs, and if data is indeed showing that such a haemorrhage exists, then we all have an immediate duty to produce ideas on how to stop this.

The government is currently working on a national strategy for sport and a sports policy to address these issues. The policy will have competitiveness in the field of sport as its main target, but will deal extensively with sports participation at all ages and grassroots development for our youths. We need our children to engage in sporting activity. It is not just a health issue, but an overriding obligation on us all to ensure that our children grow into adults who are not only concerned with their own professional development, but also with the well-being of those around them and of their society.

They will have children too, so we must transmit to them, as parents and sports administrators, the beauty of which is participation in sport.

Ryan Callus, Opposition Spokesman for Youth, Sports and the fight against obesity

Malta has placed second from last in a recent Eurobarometer study in the likeliness of our youths getting involved in sports club activities. A mere 11 per cent of Maltese youths aged between 15 and 30, compared to a European average of 29 per cent, participate in sports activities. This might explain the other worrying trend that 40 per cent of youths are considered overweight. However, the participation of our youth and children in sports is not solely dictated by a need to keep oneself in good health, fitness and shape, but likewise essential to the formation of one’s character through an appreciation of the universal values of sport: teamwork, discipline, empathy, equality, fairplay, honesty and respect.

In the few weeks I have been Opposition spokesman for sports, I have come in touch with two extremities. I have met, on one side, parents who push their children into sports as a means to showcase them as the most intelligent of all, and on the other, those who consider sports as a distraction from scholastic studies. Both extremities are undesirable. In particular, the latter may partly contribute to the current low participation of youth in sports. Parents who shun their children from sports activities fail to understand that participating in sports is a necessary compliment to the development of children in their childhood, and eventually paying off also in adulthood.

Participation in sports is not merely about staying in shape and healthy, but equally important, about personal development

In spite of the fact that Malta is a country with limited territory, a number of sports facilities are available. However, a substantial part of the facilities are dedicated to football. True to fact, football is the biggest game and unfortunately requires large parcels of land. However, there is a need to further diversify our efforts to other sports disciplines. This could help in increasing involvement of our youths by providing an increased selection of sports disciplines.

Another aspect which definitely contributes to the decreasing participation of youth in sports is the comfort zone of computers and smart phones. Teenagers are spending hours of free time on the digital devices, either watching films, chatting or playing online games. In fact, online games are being considered the new sports, called e-sports. Definitely not the typical kind of sports we are accustomed to, e-sports involves teaming up locally or individually, to compete with other players overseas. While it can provide the individual with values of teamwork and perhaps other sport values, its contribution to physical activity is non-existant. Therefore, e-sports fans should complement their hobby with other sport disciplines which provide physical action and activity. 

One should ask whether the decline in membership in sport clubs could be the result of diverting their main focus only on the most talented. At the age of 13, sports starts becoming competitive and those who do not manage to make it with the first team no longer find it enticing, become demotivated, and drop out before you know it.

Participation may increase if clubs seriously enhance the social dimension of being a club member; make sports a more friendly and enjoyable experience as opposed to a strictly competitive event; provide price packages to cater for the more deprived of society; and also target parents in a more effective manner given their crucial role in driving their children towards sports. Participation also depends on whether the upbringing takes place in a family which embraces the sports culture. The absence of a sports culture in our society therefore makes physical education at school imperative, if we are to tackle this deficiency seriously and effectively.

I encourage the authorities to undertake a study to determine in a scientific and structured manner the current state of play, paving the way for long-term policy to address the identified deficiencies. Ultimately, we should never forget that participation in sports is not merely about staying in shape and healthy, but equally important, about personal development.

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