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‘A focus on winning produces couch-potato culture’

Britain's couch-potato culture is creating a "lost generation" of obese and physically inactive teenagers, as latest figures show the number of people aged 16 and above taking part in sport at least once a week has slumped by 400,000.

In addition, medical researchers have observed that highly active children are less likely to suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and coronary heart disease later in life. Yet new figures show the extent of the current obesity crisis that is gripping the nation. More than 135 people with diabetes have a leg, foot or toe amputated each week and four out of five of these amputations are preventable. It is estimated that obesity costs the NHS £4.2 billion a year and physical inactivity about £1.1 billion. Therefore, we are undeniably facing a serious problem.

Our children have to be active every day; physical activity stimulates growth and leads to improved physical and emotional health. Exercise is also known to relieve stress. In today’s society more and more children are experiencing as much stress, depression, and anxiety as adults do. Thus the need for exercise that improves their health is required now more than ever. A fit child is more likely to be well rested and mentally sharp and even moderate physical activity has been shown to improve a child’s skill at arithmetic, reading, and memorisation.

However exercise, gives a child far more than physical health. Chartered psychologist Steven Sylvester points out that sport, not just exercise is invaluable when it comes to children’s psychological state of mind.

“Sport offers children a deep sense of belonging, whether that’s being part of a team or community and it also provides them with unparalleled happiness when they preform at their best and enjoy the many rewards it has to offer.”

Sylvester believes that children need sport in their lives as it most importantly teaches them how to develop their inner drive, relationships and the ability to make decisions under pressure. Sport therefore is fundamental in building our self-esteem. They learn the value of expressing themselves freely in something they love doing with their peers and gain a great feeling of acceptance as others value them.

However, current British sporting culture means that we have an over emphasis on a win-at-all-costs mentality. Subsequently, sports are overtly focused at the elite end to the detriment of creating sport for all, where children can cultivate and participate for the sheer love of being involved. As a result of this culture, a breed of ‘pushy parents’ has evolved which discourages our children, who are then unable to see the benefits of sports participation.

For example, earlier this year, Marylebone Cricket Club and Chance to Shine, a charity that encourages and enables children to play cricket, carried out a survey that found more than 40% of children who responded had seen an adult abusing an official at a sports event. More significantly, just over a quarter said they thought winning was more important to their parents than it was to them.

In another report published last year, the organisation found that nearly half of the children said their parents’ behaviour made them want to give up. This highlights that we have a complex battle going on between the need for our children to participate in an active lifestyle and the potential damaging psychological effects parents can have if they do not manage their involvement in the way that suits the needs of their children best.

But what is the solution to this apparent problem?

“I think we have a moral, ethical and cultural duty to ensure every adult understands the need to educate our children as to the importance of being active, using sport as a vehicle.” In addition to being a father of four, Steven has had 20 years of consulting with young people. He has developed five key areas that he believes both children and their parents must be aware of and embrace to really achieve the upmost freedom, happiness and success from involvement sport.

“Initially, parents that do not listen to their children’s expectations in their sporting lives are placing them on a self destructive path”. The psychologist claims that if there is a mismatch between parents and children when it comes to what they expect from the child’s involvement in playing sport, then there may be negative consequences. “Nothing can be more crushing for a young child than the stress of being forced to partake in a sport to meet requirements set by their own parents. Coming from a professional sporting background, Steven played cricket to First Class level. Like his father before him, who played to good club level, Steven maintains that his passion for sport is not pushed upon his own children. He believes that the best thing to do for the development of children is to expect nothing more than for them to do their best. “If the child believes their parents only want them to try their hardest, it will allow them to perform freely under less pressure. The real reason behind playing the sport for enjoyment will rise to the surface and subsequently they will feel much happier.” If this attitude is adopted into society, an increase in sports participation will surely rise amongst young people.

Secondly, parents and children who don’t smile and embrace errors in sport can have a serious impact on the child’s progression and mind-set. “A closed attitude towards mistakes promotes the idea that failure is unacceptable” Steven says, “This generates a lot of stress for young children to cope with, as they feel isolated under the impression that it is not ok to make errors.” In today’s extremely tough and competitive environment, parents must more than ever instil in their children a desire to embrace and celebrate what can be learnt from errors and that underperforming is part of life. “A great wealth of research shows that the value behind something as simple as smiling at your child when they make mistakes has massive psychological benefits.” Steven is more than familiar with the rewards this brings. He has had much experience of standing pitch side at his children’s cricket, football, netball and rugby matches. “I believe part of the reason for my children’s love for sport is the encouragement I give them over anything else. I have always focused on reminding them of the importance about learning from their errors and I believe this has enabled them to really find sports they love and enjoy to play.”

Moving on from this, Steven emphasizes that the most significant reason behind playing sport is for pure fun and enjoyment. “At the end of the day we must ensure that our children have great enthusiasm for being active.” Steven argues that the elitist and competitive nature of British sporting culture promotes parents and children to only focus on winning. This he says is awfully damaging for the young person. Sylvester, over the last 20 years has worked with some of the world’s most elite athletes across a variety of sports. What is paradoxical, is that he has found that today, he spends time with athletes helping them return to their original mindset when they began their sport. “By reminding them of their deep love and passion for their sport they stop thinking selfishly (‘I am in the sport to win’) and started operating without ego (‘I play this sport for the pure enjoyment, and how I can use my talent to be more ambassadorial and inspire others’). Therefore, if we focus on demonstrating the fun aspect of sport we will be forever closer to inspiring our children to ‘get off the couch’ and be more active.

Nevertheless, the psychologist claims that there is a slight futility if a child is playing sport without putting the full amount of effort they can into it. “This however is not purely down to the individual child” Steven remarks. “Both parent and child must make a healthy commitment to sport. The child must see the positives in training hard and the parent likewise must support them for a successful and happy relationship to develop, regardless of the child’s ability.” Sport and exercise can truly be used as a way of uniting families, whether that’s mum and dad going to see their sons or daughters local sporting matches or brothers and sisters playing and being active in the garden, putting effort into regularly keeping fit will have massive benefits on the families well rounded health. Sylvester believes that in today’s society, making commitments like this are vital to a healthy lifestyle as it provides both children and their parents with a consistent escape from their everyday stresses. “In my own experience, I have tried to teach my children the values behind exercising consistently and the lifestyle rewards it brings. Perhaps the irony is that now, my eldest son is forever encouraging me to keep up with his relentless fitness programme.” This serves as a perfect example of how proactively putting effort into making a lifestyle commitment to sport has rewarding benefits to family health and togetherness.

Overall, Sylvester promotes that the benefits of listening, smiling, having fun and putting the effort into sport will build up the level of self-regard children have for themselves. “Once they live by these four things they initiate a self fulfilling prophecy,” Steven says. “They now have a desire to be a custodian to other children around them as they enthusiastically show the positive effects of participating in their sport”. Steven highlights that the most significant characteristic that will be born out of following these principles, is that it will develop a child’s willingness to give to others. “In the battle against a win-at-all-costs culture, encouraging our children to be more selfless is most vital in sustaining a sense of community in our modern society rife with loneliness, isolation and depression.” He truly believes sport is a perfect medium in which children can learn these values, whilst at the same time improving their health and fitness to battle the ongoing fight with increasing diabetes, obesity, and coronary heart disease.


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