This page provides evidence-based advice on how to best facilitate a child’s sporting development.
When considering these tips or recommendations, it is important to match your expectations with a child’s developmental status and their motivation for participating in sport. Children often play sport for fun and social reasons, competitive and performance-orientated reasons or a combination of all these factors. Nurturing a love of playing sport at any level has many benefits. Remember this is just the start of their lifelong journey enjoying sport.
Well-intentioned individuals often exhibit the traits of a ‘bad sport’ because they simply lack better guidance. Parents, family members, coaches and teachers are recognised as critical support agents for a children’s sporting future. Guidance, support and behaviour during a child’s formative sporting years can positively influence their sporting journey, enhance your own enjoyment of sport and foster an enriched bond between you and a child.
For a positive, fun and nurturing experience of sport, individuals must remain positive, regardless of the result, and stay realistic in their shared expectations to avoid putting pressure on the child. You can greatly assist a child’s development by providing a strong and positive role model and upholding integrity and respect.
Tip 1: Fundamental movement skills
The importance of a strong base of fundamental movement skills for lifelong participation and performance in sport.
Possessing a well-rounded repertoire of fundamental movement skill competencies lays an ideal platform for future skill development, potentially to elite levels. Other benefits include greater confidence, adaptability and resilience aligned to better physical competence, injury minimisation and greater sporting potential.
Early school-aged children should ideally possess the following fundamental movement skills and competency in these fundamental and foundational movement skills are a recognised pre-cursor or ‘building blocks’ to these later sport-specific skills:
|Fundamental skills||Sport-specific skills|
Kicking, Throwing, Catching,
Cricket, Rugby, Soccer, Hockey, Tennis, Basketball, Badminton, Softball, Baseball, Volleyball, Water polo
Running, Hopping, Jumping
Athletics, Cross country Orienteering, Rugby, Soccer, Hockey, Softball, Baseball, Basketball, Wheelchair sports
Balancing, Tumbling, Climbing
Gymnastics, Diving, Aerial skiing, Surfing, Snow and ski-board, Cycling, Kayaking, Sailing
Floating, Early swimming strokes, Paddling, Standing on a surfboard
Swimming, Water polo, Surfing
TIP: Foster a child’s fundamental movement competencies
Check that the child’s activities address most of these fundamental movement skills: locomotive, object control, body control and aquatic. Below are some activities to help develop these skills:
- stopping and kicking a ball
- hitting a stationary and later a moving ball with a small light cricket bat
- running (in a straight line, zigzag, backward)
- jumping (one and two leg)
- skipping (with and without a rope)
- climbing and tumbling, at home or at a local park or trampoline park
- experimenting with different swim strokes
- paddling and standing on a surfboard at the beach.
Organised early movement programs, such as:
- Gymnastic Australia’s LaunchPad programmes
- BMX Australia’s BMX Mini Wheelers programme
- swimming lessons like those run by an AUSTSWIM recognised programme
Check out this great website for more information:
- WA Department of Education, Fundamental Movement Skills – Manual for Teachers
Don’t forget the fundamental movement skills!
Nurture a full range of movement skills including kicking or hitting a ball, running, jumping, climbing, balancing and basic aquatic skills.
Tip 2: Deliberate Play
Deliberate play, or unorganised play and practice, by a child on their own or with family and friends is a valuable adjunct to organised sport. Deliberate play promotes movement problem solving, creativity, diversification, variability and adaptability of skills, self-challenge and mastery.
Classic examples of deliberate play from sporting legends include:
- The late Sir Donald Bradman honed his batting skills by hitting a golf ball off a corrugated water tank with a cricket stump.
- Former rugby league international Brad Fittler developed his football skills out of the front of his suburban Sydney home with a plastic football (Coates, P 2005).
- Former professional surfer and seven-time world champion Layne Beachley learned to surf at
Manly beach on a foam surf board (Coates, P 2005).
TIP: Promote deliberate play with children by setting up diversified and stimulating play environments
- Explore your environment inside and outside and use what you’ve got at your disposal including brick walls, fences, grassy, sandy and cement areas, the corridor or veranda in your house (great for balloon tennis, soccer and cricket with a soft ball).
- Provide children with an array of age and size-appropriate, bats, sticks, racquets and balls of varying sizes, and basketball targets that they can challenge themselves with on their own. Below is a citation from a study that investigated the role of deliberate play in the development of cricket batting skills (Weissensteiner, Abernethy & Farrow, 2009).
You’d be playing with a hard ball in the backyard and around the park but on the road when you’re playing with tennis balls or other sorts of composite balls or down at the beach we’d often shave one side so it’d swing. If we were down the beach we’d dunk it in the water so that made it a bit heavier and ... that’d make it fly a bit differently.
- Encourage ambidexterity (e.g. hitting and throwing with left and right arms and kicking with left and right feet) and finding unique solutions to movement challenges. Children and athletes come in all shapes and sizes, so finding whatever movement provides the desired result is the key!
- Promote and embrace creativity when it comes to setting your own rules — rules like hitting the ball over the fence is six and out.
We had a slat fence with upright posts and beam supports ... if I hit it between the beams it was runs but if I hit under the beams or over the top beam it was out, or if I hit the uprights itwas out, so they were my fielders. The challenge was to see how much of a risk I could take, the most runs were scored in the hardest areas.Weissensteiner et al 2009
Deliberate play promotes movement problem solving, creativity, diversification, variability and adaptability of skills, self-challenge and mastery
Tip 3: Family support
Research is finding that early sporting experiences with family and friends are instrumental to sporting skill development and later sporting expertise. The AIS research project My Sporting Journey and the Australian Research Council Linkage Project Sporting Talent are finding that parents are great early skill educators as a ‘fellow participant’ and provide numerous types of support. Some of this support includes setting up home developmental environments, helping with physical preparation, emotional and financial support, technical advice and providing access to appropriate coaching.
Findings from the My Sporting Journey Project showed a high percentage of these athletes had parents and/or siblings who also excelled in the same sport and other sports. That certainly shows a strong ‘familial advantage’!
Current research also demonstrates that for female athletes, playing with their brothers and male friends in their foundational years is a strong contributor to later sporting success. Playing with male peers not only provides an avenue for skill progression, enhanced mental toughness, fitness and physical robustness, but they can also be supportive and motivating.
Importantly family sporting play also encourages parents to participate and fosters positive family dynamics between parent and child.
Classic examples of familial advantage include:
- Multiple BMX world champion Caroline Buchanan rode and competed in BMX with her dad and her brother.
- Rugby League Immortal Andrew Johns and his brother Mathew honed their legendary technical and tactical skills playing backyard football.
- Australian cricketing brothers Shaun and Mitchell Marsh watched their father Geoff play Test cricket and had their own backyard cricket battles, where Mitchell was often relegated to bowling to his older brother.
- AFL star Adam Goodes played soccer, cricket and Australian football in the backyard with his younger brothers (Coates, P 2005).
TIP: Foster everyday sport activity and playtime at home and be an effective support provider
- limit screen time at home
- assist early skill development by joining in or foster deliberate play by exploring and making the most of your child’s home developmental environment inside and out! (see last tip for ideas)
- be a sounding board, provide emotional support and positive encouragement
- provide financial and travel support
- offer technical advice, especially if you’ve played the same sport, or help your child find information
- facilitate your child’s access to appropriate instruction and coaching.
If you are interested in becoming a coach check out these resources:
Family and friends are instrumental to sporting skill development and later sporting expertise.
Tip 4: Age-modified sport formats and equipment
Children are not mini adults! As an important precursor to sport-specific skill development, minimise potential injuries and to ensure a positive learning experience and fun, children should participate in modified versions of a sport that are appropriate to their age, size and skill level.
Some examples of these include:
- ANZ NetSetGo features fun and progressive age and skill appropriate formats of netball with modified rules
- MiniRoos soccer features small-sided games
- ANZ Tennis Hot Shots, where children aged 4–12 play on smaller tennis courts with lighter racquets and low-compression balls
- TryRugby Kids Pathway features progressive small-sided games, playing areas and non-tackle formats
- BMX Mini Wheelers features balance bikes for riders as young as two
It is critical that children use equipment matched to their size and age (e.g. light and shorter hockey sticks, light and smaller tennis racquets). Matching the right sized equipment reduces the risk of injury and promotes the development and refinement of a child’s sporting skills.
TIP: Insist on the right sport format and equipment
The Australian Government’s Sporting Schools initiative provides a great choice of appropriate sport formats for primary school children before, during and after school. A list of sports offered can be found on the Sporting Schools website.
These programmes, informed by contemporary research and practice and delivered by experienced instructors provide a great introduction to sport and lots of fun.
While it might be tempting to buy the latest branded adult-sized equipment used by sporting heroes, you may be limiting skill development and risking injury.
- Check if your school has registered for Sporting Schools and enrol children in programmes they would enjoy. If a particular sport is not available through Sporting Schools, check out the sport’s website for more information.
- Talk to a sporting goods provider or online about appropriate equipment.
- Allow children to try sporting equipment in the store before purchase.
- Specific to sports such as cricket, tennis and hockey use Gunn and Moore First cricket ball, Wilson Starter Tennis balls or Whiffle balls respectively to slow down the speed of the ball or large tennis balls (Scorcher balls) making it easier for interception.
Age-modified sport formats and equipment
Children should participate in modified versions of a sport that are appropriate to their age, size and skill level.
Tip 5: Sport sampling
Research shows a high proportion of elite Australian athletes took part in a diverse variety of sports before specialising. The variety of sports provides a fuller, more competent and adaptable skill base for the athlete to draw on at an elite level.
A diversified investment in sports before specialisation has also been linked to minimising injury and reducing later dropout and burnout from sport.
Findings from the My Sporting Journey project found that most Australian athletes who had made the podium at senior international events participated in an average of four different sports — often to a high level — before specialising in their main sport. Of these athletes, 80 per cent reported that training and competition in these prior sports greatly assisted their performance in their main sport.
Classic examples of sport sampling include:
- Dual international in cricket and soccer, Ellyse Perry, also played touch football, athletics, tennis and golf.
- Multiple Paralympic wheelchair racer Richard Nicholson also competed in gymnastics, archery, swimming, powerlifting and skateboarding on his hands before committing to road and track racing.
TIP: Sample, sample, sample and have fun!
Except for early specialising-sports such as gymnastics, resist the temptation to encourage specialisation in one sport too early.
Sampling a large range of sports during childhood and continuing to play several sports, until adolescence, is likely to:
- maximise the development of a full range of sporting skills
- promote adaptability of skills and all-body coordination and control
- enhance the possibility of later senior sporting success
- minimise the likelihood of overuse injuries.
- encourage children to try out a few sports, organised and unorganised
- allow them to work out which sports they are good at and which ones they like the most
- allow them to decide which sport they want specialise in.
Encourage children to try a few sports. This will help the development of a full range of sporting skills, coordination and control.
Tip 6: Smart practice
It is well accepted that practice is important in developing sporting skills. But the quality and type of practice is more important than quantity alone. Executing and refining the same complement of sporting skills is vital.
A good example of this is limiting the use of ball machines when developing the batting skills of young cricketers. A ball machine does not offer the important visual cues for anticipating the line and length of an incoming delivery from a bowler in a game context. Expertise in cricket batting relies on a combination of anticipatory (i.e. reading the body cues of a bowler), decision making and technical skills. The best way to develop young batsmen and women is to get them to face a variety of bowlers with differing spin, swing and pace and a mix of left and right handed.
This concept applies equally to other interceptive sports such as tennis, hockey and water polo.
TIP: Practice, practice, practice but make it fun and relevant
- Encourage children to practice their sporting skills in an ecological manner, for example, practice the full complement of skills within a context similar to that in competition.
- Encourage children to embrace practicing under varying constraints (differing environmental conditions, under time pressure etc). This enhances skill progression and robustness, adaptability and coping skills and it can also be fun and challenging.
The quality and type of practice is more important than simply how much you do it and make sure it’s challenging and fun.
Tip 7: Observational Skills
Learning is often based on observation and imitation. Children learn many behavioural responses such as reaction to failure (getting out in cricket or missing a shot in tennis) or how to respond to a coach or referee from their parents, their siblings, peers and sporting idols. They will also learn about a sport and its technical and tactical elements from similar observations.
Observational learning is a valuable tool for aiding skill development. It occurs when watching sport (including in the backyard or at a club) or a sporting hero or mentor and then imitating techniques and mannerisms.
A common trait of elite athletes is to be a ‘true scholar’ of the sport. They diligently observe and study sporting idols competing and try to mimic their techniques or routines. Sometimes they even imagine they are their sporting idol. Below is quote from a former Australian Test batsman on how he utilised observational learning at the elite level.
"When you watch guys like Brian Lara [former West Indian batsman] or Sachin Tendulkar [former Indian batsman], Ricky Ponting [current Australian batsman and captain], you just pick up little things. I remember clearly I scored a Test [international] hundred . . . and I think it was at that stage the third fastest ever hundred by an Australian Test batsmen . . . and I was actually [imagining] I was Brian Lara".
TIP: Don’t underestimate the power of observational learning
- Foster observational learning by allowing children to watch sport live or on television.
- Allow them to imitate the techniques, routines and mannerisms of their positive sporting idols or contemporaries.
- Support their scholarly interest and craving for information for a sport.
- Be a positive role model! Always endeavour to provide the appropriate behaviour modelling to children and young people. Consider the way you react to success and failure, show respect to coaches and officials, demonstrate good sportsmanship, respect and integrity, exhibit good character and upholding personal excellence and a strong work ethic. For excellent guidance on these aspects, access the ‘Play by the Rules’ resources.
Children learn many behavioural responses such as reaction to failure or how to respond to a coach or referee from their parents, their siblings, peers and sporting idols.
Tip 8: Self-regulation
Self-regulation is regarded as a complementary mix of six psychological skills — effort, self-efficacy, planning, self-monitoring, evaluation and reflection. Contemporary evidence emerging from a variety of sports shows that strong self-regulation underpins effective learning in training, aids performance and skill refinement and assists in effectively negotiating the athlete pathway.
TIP: Foster self-regulatory skills
Taking ownership of the consequences of our own actions, including performance on a sporting field, is a fundamental responsibility of being a person, and an essential component of developing future success. Providing the right opportunities for children and youths to develop and practice age appropriate self-regulatory skills such as self-reflection, goal setting, positive self-talk and mental imagery are valuable strategies.
- Self-Reflection: Encourage children to not rely solely on your feedback or that of their coach, but to complement it with their own reflections on how they went in practice or competition. Keeping a journal is a useful way to reflect. Use the following prompts to help the child write a journal entry:
- get them to describe what happened
- get them to reflect on what they were thinking and feeling before, during and after
- get them to articulate what felt good or what they did well
- ask them what didn't feel good or what can they improve on next time
- help them think about what they plan to do next time and how they are going to achieve this
With practice, children should be able to follow these prompts on their own.
- SMART Goal Setting: As an outcome of effective self-reflection, the child should be committed to improving their performance in training or competition. Effective goal setting can help this. Goal setting involves identifying a level of performance or a target, which a child can realistically achieve within an appropriate timeframe. A good idea is to get the child, with your support and guidance, to write down their goals and track their progress. Goals should be “SMART” - Specific, Measurable, Action-focused, Realistic, and within a Timeframe.
- Positive self-talk: Positive self-talk can increase motivation and is an essential coping skill. Assist to develop positive ‘mantras’ or statements they can use when training and competing. Some good examples are ‘come on, I can do this’ or ‘I have trained well and I’m ready to excel!’ Self-talk can also be used to assist skill execution, for example ‘drive up’ or ‘follow through’. Positive body language is also important -- encourage the child to hold their head up and shoulders back and show their opponents they are ready and confident.
- Imagery: Mental imagery is an excellent adjunct to physical training and has been shown to improve learning and performance.
- It should be done in a quiet relaxing environment away from distractions.
- The child could start by watching an elite athlete performing the skill they want to improve. They should watch their technique and then imagine themselves completing the same action. They should imagine watching themselves perform the technique from a spectator’s point of view, as well as imagining what it would look like from an internal perspective.
- Find which method is most comfortable for them and encourage them to keep practising. It might also help to watch a video of their own performance.
- While practicing mental imagery get the child to try and use all of their senses (sight, touch, taste, sound, smell and feel). What noise is the crowd making? What does their equipment feel like? How does it feel successfully executing their skill? Next time they are training or competing ask them to focus on all their senses. Encourage them to write down all the details of one of their better performances. They should include as much information as they can and recreate this performance in their mind.
After the game, ask the child: ‘what felt good today?’ or ‘what do you think you could improve on for next time?’
Tip 9: The 'sport-ready athlete'
It is very important for sporting participants to have an understanding of, and strategies for, effectively managing the demands and requirements related to being an athlete. With appropriate guidance and practice, these strategies can become life-long habits.
These complementary skills include:
- Understanding the importance of having a sound athletic base (e.g. optimal neuromuscular flexibility, muscular strength and stability of the major joint complexes, good ‘whole body’ coordination) and maintaining good physical health.
- Knowing how to properly warm-up and cool down before and after training and competition, and understand why it’s important.
- Knowing how to prevent and manage sport related injuries and illness and knowing who to consult for further assistance.
- Understanding the importance of good nutritional habits.
- Having a good awareness and implementing strategies to monitor and manage hydration and safely exercising in hot and cold environments.
- Understanding the importance of not over-training or over-competing.
- Understanding the importance of rest and recovery.
- Maintaining a healthy sport-life balance.
TIP: Help children become sport-ready!
Educate yourself and the child on all the above aspects so they exhibit good and consistent sport-smarts. Good sources of information include but are not limited to:
- Australian Institute of Sport’s Nutrition website
- Healthy Active Kids website particularly Kids Vids and On Line Games which are excellent resources aimed for kids!
- International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Nutrition
- International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Youth Athlete Development
- the child’s coach or club
The 'sport-ready athlete'
Get a healthy sport-life balance. Get an understanding of the role that good nutrition, hydration, rest and recovery, plays in the child’s sporting life.
Tip 10: Right coach and club fit
The club and coach are a major part of the environment and experience for any participant in sport. It is important to find the right match to effectively support the child’s skill development and sporting goals. Understanding and aligning you and the child’s motivation, philosophies and skills with the right coach and club environment will provide a great platform for ongoing participation, performance and enjoyment. Findings from the Sport Australia's Market Segmentation research linked below provide some excellent insights.
A paper titled ‘A look through the rear view mirror: Developmental Experiences and Insights of High Performance Athletes’ (Gulbin et al. 2010) documents the insights of 673 high performance Australian athletes across 34 sports and highlights the importance of a good athlete-coach match. The paper recognised several key characteristics of a good coach, including sport-related factors and also key inter and intra-personal attributes.
TIP: Characteristics of a great coach and club
Do your research when looking for the right coach and club match for the child.
Characteristics of good developmental clubs include:
- quality coaching personnel that are experienced in coaching developing athletes and are appropriately accredited
- the provision of appropriate developmental opportunities and progression
- positive, supportive, encouraging and welcoming club culture for you and your children
- effective communication and engagement strategies to support children and their parents
- approachable mentors
- quality training facilities which are nearby and accessible
- close connection with local schools and their respective state and national organisations.
Characteristics of a good coach include:
- strong and effective communication
- encouraging, good motivator
- strong teaching ability
- confident and relaxed style
- take a personal interest and show a duty of care to the welfare of their athletes
- stress a balance between life and sport
- a detailed knowledge of the sport
- are aware and considerate of the impact of biological and psychological maturation on skill development and performance. There is a suitable fit of the program to the child’s maturity. A good coach understands that optimal development is individualised, considerate of psychological and sport-specific skills as well as physical attributes, and takes time, diligence and patience. They provide support and opportunity to ‘late-maturing’ and ‘early-maturing’ athletes through a focus on sport-specific and psychological skill development rather than pure physicality.
You can assist the child’s coach by supporting their approach and philosophy and showing them respect. If you have any concerns regarding the child, other than an immediate safety concern, approach them when they are not coaching or instructing.
Right coach and club fit
Find a sporting club that provides products and services including quality coaching, that focus on fun and participation regardless of skill level and ability.
The above tips are in accordance with best practice specific to the foundational levels of the Foundation, Talent, Elite and Mastery (FTEM) athlete development framework which is informed by contemporary research and practice.
FTEM is a user-friendly framework of sport development, representative of the ‘whole of sport’ pathway which includes active lifestyle activities, recreational and high performance sport. Common to all three outcomes is a strong foundational base of development and life-long participation in sport (F1, F2 and F3).