Rugby for all, not just elite young players

Changes are now in place to revolutionise the delivery of junior rugby across the top of the south. Photo: Shuttersport.

The Tasman Rugby Union recently announced there would be no representative teams at under-15 level and below this season. CEO Tony Lewis explains the underlying reasons for the change, and the research on which the decision was based.   

Our decision was made in response to concerns about elitism and high-performance rugby programmes at junior level, the negativity of non-selection, the coaching process and the declining participation from this age group.

It was based on a business case developed by TRU staff and a considerable body of research that suggests children’s sport is increasingly driven by adults’ ambitions.

Playing JAB and age grade rugby has clear social, physical and mental health benefits for children, but evidence illustrates that youth sports in NZ society have become increasingly controlled and regulated by adults, which takes out the fun for many children.

An in-depth study was undertaken with all stakeholders including, most importantly, the young playing group themselves, including those players who were or were not selected, in our representative teams.

We have received mainly positive feedback from our stakeholders, although the real proof will be the delivery of the new programmes. Some responses fell back on the argument that political correctness had gone mad, a common response that tends to close off any meaningful debate.

Tony Lewis. Photo: Supplied.
Tony Lewis. Photo: Supplied.

There were some people who believe that this decision will effectively close off a “career pathway”. Seriously, the only pathways kids should be on until well into their teens are footpaths. The idea that a 12-year-old is on the pathway to a professional sports career is ridiculous and speaks only to parental obsession, not reality.

This year the Mako Development camps, which replace the rep programmes, will start on Sunday, July 28, with all the Mitre 10 Cup and Farah Palmer Cup players involved in the delivery. In what I believe is a NZ rugby first, our camps will be for both male and female.

The TRU based its decision on research over the last three years that shows young people play rugby primarily to have fun and play with their mates; to receive good coaching and good refereeing; to play in a meaningful competition and for the sheer joy and exhilaration it provides.

What will surprise many is the fact that that winning hardly received a mention.

Adolescence is the time most associated with drop out from sport with a commonly-cited reason being that sport stops being “fun”.

In the US, researcher Amanda Visek found that “fun” for children meant up to 81 different things. “Getting compliments from coaches” was No 1, “Playing well during a game” was ranked second and “Winning” came in at No 30.

The TRU have implemented positive changes over the past couple of seasons following feedback from local players of various ages, genders, and experience levels on what they want out of the game – namely, meaningful competition, development (learning new skills) and enjoyment.

Bold changes by the TRU involve removing the structures that encourage a ‘win-at-all-cost’ mentality, while emphasising and expanding on the reasons kids play sport in the first instance.

Some of these changes include:

  • Eliminating big score blow outs (cricket scores) by implementing a win/loss points system, removing point differentials.
  • Encouraging meaningful competition by introducing a bylaw that allows team management to work together to create a competitively balanced, enjoyable game.
  • Introducing an exciting 3-4 week ‘TRU Cup’ to conclude the season, giving all teams the chance to win the grade.
  • Another positive initiative has involved Tasman Rugby rewarding fair play and sportsmanship with prizes.

These changes have had a positive effect on the delivery of teenage rugby in the region and is a step in the right direction to a greater understanding on how coaches, managers, and administrators can deliver rugby.

This was backed up by the following statistics – 60 percent of coaches and managers saw an improvement in sideline and player behaviour from 2017-2018 (Age Grade Survey), 80 percent of referees reported  an improvement in player and sideline behaviour (2018 Referee Report) and there was a 38 percent decrease in yellow and red cards issued due to improved player behaviour (2018 Card Tracker).

A key focus was to inform parents, coaches, teachers and volunteers through the clubs and schools that rugby are putting structures in place to ensure a quality sporting experience for a young person every time they play. Representative teams at early ages have often been associated with over-the-top adult behaviour and selection biases.

It is the belief of the TRU that there is a need for a culture change in rugby if we want to grow our game and make it a game for all in the Top of the South.

We should never forget that junior rugby is the children’s game, not ours.

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