Game plan: How to help a child who doesn't enjoy school sports

There are so many reasons why it’s important that your child takes part in sports at school, but what can you do if your child’s not keen?

With the prevalence of childhood obesity and an abundance of digital devices tempting kids away from the great outdoors, it’s more important than ever to encourage them to move. 

According to Active Healthy Kids Australia, only 19 per cent of children aged five to 17 years meet the minimal national guidelines of at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day.

School sport, from PE lessons to swimming carnivals, can be a great way to get your children engaged in activity. But what if your child hates the idea of sporting activities at school?

Here are some tips to help: 

Why does my child hate sport?

Not everyone can be Usain Bolt or Ricky Ponting, and if your child’s passions veer more towards art than archery, that’s fine. 
 
However, if compulsory sport is making your kid miserable, the first step might be to look at why. 
 
A child’s aversion to sport might stem from a negative experience that may seem quite innocuous to their parent, such as a personality mismatch with a previous coach or even feeling overwhelmed in a toddler gym class. 
 
“There might have been a lot of noise or whistles, and if kids are very sensitive to their environment or have sensory issues, they could find this quite stressful,” suggests child psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien of The Quirky Kid Clinic. 
 
Your child might also be a perfectionist, refusing to participate to avoid the embarrassment or frustration of not mastering a new skill straight away. 

Start slow

A safe setting can be important when introducing your child to sport. Start with a small group – a few kids your child is comfortable with, or just you and your child tossing a ball around. Start with a soft toy rather than a hard ball to practise throwing and catching. 

For formal coaching, consider a one-on-one setting, such as tennis, rather than a team sport where a large group might overwhelm your child. 

Dr O’Brien adds that demonstrating a good relationship between you and the coach can also be important. “If the relationship between parent and teacher is really positive, kids will often feel safer and more interested in participating.” 

If perfectionism appears to be holding your child back, Raising Children Network suggests encouraging them to practise in an informal setting. “Try setting small, reachable targets like ‘doing two good passes’, ‘running to catch up with another player’, or ‘dancing for three kicks longer’. This can help your child see and enjoy progress, and improve skills and confidence too.”
Child and coach

Praise and positivity

Competition, particularly when it involves a coach putting pressure on kids to perform, can be stressful. 

“Look for an environment that praises effort over results,” says O’Brien. Keep it light and positive. “Respect resistance and don’t push them or punish them,” she says. Instead, give them praise, whether for an improvement in their skills or an increase in engagement or effort. Focus on having fun, trying hard and being a good sport, rather than winning.

Use performance psychology

Olympic athletes use performance psychology as part of their training, but similar techniques can be just as effective with kids, especially tools such as goal-setting and positive self-talk. O’Brien advises empowering kids with choice, allowing them to choose their own sport. She also suggests, “Ask kids to score themselves in terms of effort, monitoring their efforts week by week.”

Lead by example

It’s hard to convince your kids that sport is fun if the last time you raised a sweat was when you were in school uniform yourself. 

Leading by example will help encourage your kids to participate in sport and it needn’t require you to spend your Saturdays on the playing field. Play a little backyard cricket or throw a Frisbee on the beach, but whatever you choose, let your kids see you having fun.

Once you’ve worked out why your child might be reluctant to take part in sports, let them choose the activity they’re interested in. Remember to consider safe settings like small, informal groups or one-to-one coaching, set achievable goals, and give praise for improvements or effort. And make sure to include yourself in the equation – if your kids see you enjoying sports and physical activities, they’ll be more inclined to join in.
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