A lot of parents today are keen to give their children an opportunity to excel in sports. Even the ones who are not expecting their children to pick up sports as a career are now more open to the holistic development of their personalities, not restricted to academics alone. There are plenty of reasons for this—the increase in disposable income, the success stories of not just our cricketers but also other athletes in a variety of sports from badminton to boxing, and the greater visibility of sports on TV. The seriousness with which organized sports activities for children are approached now can sometimes rival professional sports.
At the same time, however, children’s physical fitness levels are at an abysmal low, according to studies conducted globally. This is not just limited to the ones who are sedentary, but as surprising as it may sound, extends to children who regularly play organized sports.
Why is this so? Various medical bodies like the US department of health and human services and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that children and adolescents should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. Most children don’t meet these targets—even if they play sports every day.
Building blocks: Unstructured sports help develop basic motor skills
Contrary to popular belief, sporty children also have a high rate of injury as their basic fitness is not up to the mark. Potential long-term problems arise because of repetitive stress injuries, leading to conditions like osteoarthritis. Organized sports for children in India ignore the fundamentals of fitness and conditioning, and go straight into sport-specific training. Just like babies need to learn how to crawl before they can walk and eventually, run, so it is with sports.
Talent may be a prerequisite to be good at any sport, but to be able to continue playing, and to take it to the next level, basic fitness is far more important.
For children, the first stage should focus primarily on introducing unstructured sports and physical activities, where the fun element is given the most importance, with the intention of helping them get hooked to an active lifestyle. Basic motor skills develop poorly if sport-specific skills are started at a very young age, ignoring other sports, unstructured play and basic fitness activities. Unstructured games like bicycling, playing tag, pitthoo, playing with the dog, etc., are equally important for holistic athletic development. These activities help in unconsciously learning important motor skills like running, jumping, throwing, hand-eye coordination, balance and agility that form the basis for all sports. Only when children have become comfortable with these, which could take up to a couple of years, should they be taken to the next level, where the focus is on the correct technique and form of basic physical activities like running, jumping or throwing. From there, it’s a simple step away to begin developing sport-specific skills.
The other glaring problem is that children involved in structured sporting activities are given very short-term goals—the stress is on winning, not on technique or fitness. Those of us who were fortunate to go to boarding schools or to schools where sports is given importance, will remember that there used to be games for each season, and you had to pick one from two-three types. In the monsoon, it could be a choice between field sports like football and hockey. At other times, it could be sports like badminton, squash or tennis. Inadvertently, it would be the same group of girls and boys who would excel in any sport. The highlight of sports day used to be track and field, not cricket.
What we overlook now is that these institutions would focus on endurance, strength training and stretching, the three pillars of basic fitness.
Specialization in a single sport should only start post-puberty. By then the adolescent is ready to pick up the nuances of a sport, and since the basic fitness level is very good, s/he is able to perform a lot better without getting injured repeatedly. That’s when they can perform optimally and do justice to their talent and capabilities.
Rajat Chauhan is an ultra marathon runner and a doctor specializing in sports and exercise medicine and musculoskeletal medicine, and founder of Back 2 Fitness.
Write to Rajat at email@example.com