Friday 24 November 2017

Sporting bodies no match for Lara Croft

John Greene

John Greene

Ireland may pride itself on being a sports mad nation, but just how do we define 'sports mad'?

Because recently published research confirms an underlying suspicion that our love of, and commitment to, sport is very limited indeed. If Olympic medals were handed out to supporters we would be gold medal contenders every time. We like to watch alright, but the doing -- now that's a whole other story.

Anyone who is involved in a club or group within their chosen sport is already aware of this. Just ask any coach how difficult it is to introduce a child into an organised system at seven or eight years of age, and keep him or her involved until they are 18.

The drop-off rate is alarming as children advance into their teens and towards adulthood. There is no evidence that the teenager loses interest in sport generally, or specifically those sports they have taken part in. In fact, attendance figures and television viewing figures show the opposite, but there is clear evidence that they cease to be involved. Or, to put it another way, they cease to be active.

"The challenge of stemming the withdrawal of young people from structured clubs during their teenage years (particularly young girls) is daunting," say the authors of the Irish Sports Council's report on sport participation and physical activity in children.

Physical activity -- taken here as any form of active living, play, sport, physical education or active transport -- is important to the current and future health of children. This report highlights the following benefits: it assists the control of body weight; it reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease; it reduces depression and anxiety, it enhances self-esteem and quality of life; it reduces rule-breaking behaviour; it improves attention span; and it has positive effects on academic performance.

Yet, just 19 per cent of primary school children and 12 per cent of post-primary school children meet the minimum recommendation for activity of 60 minutes per day. In spite of the vast sums of money spent across three government departments who overlap in this area -- health, sport and education -- the report shows there has been no improvement in this area since the last monitor in 2004. (And given that all three are facing savage cuts, the prospect of improvement is limited unless we break with tradition and start to spend smart.)

Furthermore, the research also shows that girls are less likely than boys to meet the recommendations and, critically, that there is a dramatic decrease in physical activity between the key years of 10 to 18. So, 19 per cent of children aged between 10 and 12 have adequate activity in their daily lives but by the time they reach the 16 to 18 bracket that figure has dropped sharply to just six per cent.

These findings can then be measured against physical health -- and again the results are startling. Only one in four have a healthy body mass index, over one in five are either overweight or obese and the best health profile is found in those who satisfy the activity recommendations.

Obviously, if young people are not active, they are captivated by other attractions. One parent recently told me of giving out to his son for being immersed in his PlayStation on a nice afternoon, only to be told, "You would have been too if it was out in your day." We know many children today are happier to take Lara Croft (pictured) on a screen adventure than to kit themselves out in runners or boots.

If 60 minutes of activity is the daily recommendation for young people, the maximum amount of time spent in front of a screen is advised at 120 minutes per day. Yet, the researchers found that an astonishing 99 per cent of young people exceed this.

Against a backdrop of spending cuts which will have a knock-on effect on the state provision of physical activity (in schools, for example), the onus will fall even more on the various sporting bodies -- and ultimately on volunteers -- to entice young people out of their sedentary ways. But these same organisations are already feeling the pressures of the times -- financial and otherwise -- so things may get worse before they get better.

Sunday Independent

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