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Are we grooming kids for sporting greatness too early? Some clubs certainly think so


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The weekly Offsiders production meetings typically take place in the ABC’s Southbank offices or via phone and email communication with various panellists.

This week there was an off-site meeting at Alexandra Park on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula where I convened with summer edition host Paul Kennedy to discuss show content, wardrobe, highlights packages and other weighty matters.

Actually, this is a complete fabrication — the kind of pretence perpetrated by parents across the country trying to convince bosses they are working “remotely” while actually attending one of many junior representative cricket carnivals.

By chance both Paul and my son’s team played in the same under-14 competition but on opposing teams, although there were no bragging rights on the line.

Rather as we both helped herd the cattle and carry the drinks there was just the usual and appropriate levels of anxiety most feel watching their children compete at an elevated level against talented kids with similarly excited families.

This attitude, you occasionally find, is not always shared by those parents with an exaggerated and almost always unrealistic expectation of what their child might achieve at these carnivals or what it might mean for their future cricket careers.

Are we selecting our sports stars too early?

The traditional metropolitan inter-association carnival in which our sons are playing is now one very steep rung below Victoria’s Youth Premier League where the (sometimes only presumably) even more talented kids will be paraded before state and even national youth selectors before they’ve even confronted early-age personal hygiene issues or puckered up for a first kiss.

PHOTO: Junior sport should be about the love of the game, not the score. (ABC: Supplied)

But more recently with pathways in most professional sports now strictly defined from the earliest age groups, perhaps the greater issue is whether the pyramid created by elite junior competitions has become too steep.

This belief was given some credence in New Zealand last year after a number of provinces decided to withdraw from the national under-13 representative rugby competition partly because they believed potential stars were being selected and groomed for greatness too early.

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Such a seemingly inconsequential decision made in a small country might not normally have much international resonance; even one coming as this did with the backing of Sport NZ and in agreement with the national rugby, cricket netball, football and hockey bodies.

But the iconic nature of the All Blacks meant this flap of a junior sports butterfly wing caused major ripples among international experts wondering if the Kiwis had found yet another way to punch above their collective sporting weight.

The move by New Zealand rugby runs counter to much of the perceived wisdom that had informed the creation of elite pathways in Australian junior sport — or, some might say, those changes that had been made without a great deal of wisdom or foresight at all.

The most obvious movement has been the gradual reduction of the age at which supposed future champions are identified, preselected and streamlined through elite junior squads.

Kids who develop later miss out on a chance

In some sports this means what is only presumed to be wheat is now separated from what may or may not be chaff at an alarmingly early age.

Significantly, the identification now is not merely of those unique individuals who have and always will announce their stupendous talent virtually from the cradle; the rare gems who virtually select themselves for state and national junior teams and will almost certainly succeed if they maintain the necessary desire to succeed, ability to learn and now, poignantly, their mental well-being.

There is a second level of preselection where the chosen few are identified and fast-tracked even before now well-established biases such as the disparity in development within age groups (for example, the kid born on January 1 typically has a significant developmental advantage over the kid born on December 31) are factored in.

As the Kiwis now seem well aware, this has the dual impact of both hindering the selection of potential top-flight athletes while discouraging the late-developers, the late-adopters and others who might not have been put on the right pathway at an early age.

So wisely those New Zealand provinces have decided the next Richie McCaw or Jonah Lomu might be the kid who didn’t really get serious about rugby until he was 16, not the one who lauded it over much smaller kids in the U-13s or who exhibited textbook skills in an early age.

PHOTO: Coaches should always encourage, avoid criticising, and make sure the kids are enjoying themselves. (Supplied)

The even greater benefit identified by Sport NZ is that more inclusive junior competitions are also likely to help reverse dropout rates among young players who feel excluded by an ultra-competitive environment rather than one that nurtures participation and skill acquisition.

As the website reported, the moves in New Zealand have not been without controversy.

The same dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists who believe extreme early-age combat creates resilience have tried to torpedo the changes.

Meanwhile, at Mornington, the unofficial Offsiders production meeting agreed there would be some talk about tennis tournaments, dodgy bowling actions in the BBL, some A-League stuff and various other topics on Sunday’s show.

But, to be honest, far more time was spent watching a bunch of great kids enjoying an event that hopefully creates lifetime memories, even if it isn’t a step on any real or imagined path to sporting greatness.

Story courtesy ABC

Written by: Daz

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