Health experts are warning that Australian children are dropping out of sport and their general activity levels will continue to decline unless drastic action is taken to reverse the decline.
Dr Gert-Jan Pepping, of the Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) School of Exercise Science, places part of the blame on an excessive focus on high performance for children in organised sports.
“We need to get away from this idea of creating Olympians and focus instead on enjoyment, engagement and movement,” said Dr Pepping.
“If we don’t engage, the kids won’t fall in love with sport and will eventually fall out. Part of that is because too much focus is on high performance and becoming the next Lionel Messi.
Last week the ACU hosted a cross-code roundtable in Queensland to address the problem.
It was attended by representatives of Australian football, rugby union, netball, soccer, and gymnastics, along with academics and coaches.
Among the solutions discussed were delaying the introduction of organised sport to children and investing more in coach development.
ACU School of Exercise Science’s Dr Matthew Sweeney, who chaired the summit, said the consensus was that engagement, not identification of high performers, is most important when it comes to kids and sport.
“If the kids are engaged in sport, and are passionate about specialising then fantastic, but if we push all children towards that it’s going to lead to many of them not being engaged and getting the benefits, and you alienate a whole lot of kids and potential adults who can and should be playing sport,” he said.
But there is pressure to place children on high performance pathways from Government and other funding bodies looking for future sporting stars, as well as from parents, he said.
According to the Federal Department of Health only one in five Australian children meet the recommended national daily physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity every day.
At the same time, official sport participation fell by seven per cent nationally in the last 15 years.
A recent VicHealth study found that participation plummeted by more than half among 15-19 year olds.
The picture is worse for girls, with a Victorian study of almost 14,000 girls published in BMC Public Health, finding that 60 per cent who began organised physical activity at age four or five had dropped out within five years.
“Something needs to be done now to create the change that keeps kids moving,” Dr Pepping said.