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Youth sport ready for a shake up

Former Silver Fern Debbie Christian (nee White) is delighted to see the latest moves to safeguard youth sport and believes player welfare for school athletes is crucial.

Netball New Zealand was one of five major sports in New Zealand to this week sign a Statement of Intent to focus on ensuring young people were given a positive experience in sport, amid a concerning trend of declining participation numbers.

Areas including early specialisation, an over-emphasis on winning at all costs, and raising an awareness of over-loading and over-training had come under the spotlight from five of the biggest sporting codes including Netball, Rugby, Cricket, Football and Hockey.

Christian, who captained the Otago Rebels before going on to play for the Southern Steel and Northern Mystics, was pleased to see the codes banding together to retain young people in sport.

The former defender is now working her “dream job” as the Player Welfare Liaison for Auckland Netball and has, for the past three years, seen up close the effects that sustained pressure has placed on young players.

“I’ve seen young netballers who are playing in four to six different teams across the season and have been told that’s what they need to do to ‘make it’ in the sport,” she said.

Her role was to offer guidance and support for players, parent and coaches, and she often had athletes contacting her with issues of over-loading.

She said for many athletes and families, just to hear it was okay to say ‘no’ was a massive relief.

“When you believe that your child needs to do everything asked of them for any shot at a professional contract it’s hard. It takes a brave person to say no. But the welfare of these young people really has to come first.”

Christian, who has a background in teaching, believes she can back up her advice having played netball at an elite level for 12 years – including a Silver Ferns debut in 2006 – despite being a slow starter into the game.

“I certainly wasn’t very good at netball when I was young – I didn’t get my first full game of netball until I was 16 years old,” she said with a laugh, “and I’m 6 foot and came from a school with only 300 kids.”

Now school teams could be training before school and after schools and sometimes up to two to three days a week, Christian said.

“We had one practice a week and then the rest of the time I was feeding out hay on the farm. Sport was about fun, about trying any sport we could, about playing with our mates.

“I think you could ask nearly any top athlete and they’d agree about the importance of playing many different sports and having fun.”

She believed the environment at secondary school level had “exploded” in recent years with the introduction of employed strength and conditioning coaches just one example of the “professionalism” that had been adopted.

“Look, I think sport can be a life saver in terms of teaching social skills, resilience, team-work and all of that stuff. But at this age it still needs to be about fun.

“It can still be about winning, about being competitive, just not with an ‘at all costs’ mindset at such a young age.”