Keeping your child’s sport clean: Tips for parents and whānau
31 May 2021
When your child is young and just starting off in sport, they usually have a common set of motivations. The 2017 Sports NZ participation survey tells us they’re in it for fun (76%) or to hang out with friends and whānau (45%). They’re motivated by fitness and health (31%), by the chance to learn a new skill (31%) and by the challenge or the chance to win (28%).
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always stay that way. A multitude of pressures lurking on the horizon can warp those initial motivators. Those without a strong set of positive values to guide them become vulnerable to unhealthy habits. These habits - from a fixation on comparison, a win-at-all-costs attitude or a tendency to take shortcuts rather than work hard for positive results – can be precursors to damaging behaviours in later life. Including doping.
As parents and whānau, you play a key role in guiding rangatahi as they develop the values they need to stay true and make good choices. You are the most influential entities in their lives until they reach 15, and your influence can instil in them the tools they’ll need to approach challenges, deal with failures and pursue successes in positive and healthy ways.
This article offers parents and whānau practical advice on how to support rangatahi to reach their sporting goals whilst teaching them to be clean competitors with the resilience to say no to shortcuts.
Reinforce clean values
The positive values your child learns though sport can enable them to stay clean, resilient and prepared to make good choices in challenging future situations. They’ll be able to celebrate wins with dignity, bounce back from setbacks and have the integrity they need to avoid, and say no to, doping and related behaviours.
- Teach children to respect their opponents and themselves, and to win and lose with grace.
- Encourage and praise your child regardless of the outcomes of competitions. Stay positive on the sidelines and speak positively about their opponents once the competition is over.
- Emphasise participation, personal improvement, respect and integrity above winning. Remind your child of these priorities regularly.
- Develop a sporting climate that offers multiple opportunities for your child to build their confidence through mastery of the skills of the sport. That means placing high value on learning, developing and improving skills.
- Take to your child. Be clear that you expect them to play fair, to follow the rules, and to avoid using shortcuts to enhance performance. Have ongoing conversations about integrity, respect and the spirit of sport.
Ensure a clean sporting culture
Your child’s sporting environment and culture will have a significant impact on the way they think about and approach sport. Take the time to assess whether the environment your child is exposed to is a beneficial one that will enhance their growth and development.
There are a couple of things to look out for when trying to decide whether an environment is healthy:
- Consider the coach and key support personnel. Do they model supplement use or encourage this in young athletes? Do they value respect, personal growth and equity?
- How do they approach failure – as a character judgement or as an opportunity for learning?
- Listen to your child’s peers. Are they encouraging each other and striving towards their personal goals, or is there a culture of criticism and comparison?
- Empower your child to become an informed consumer of social media content – especially content that markets supplement use as a legitimate way to enhance performance or body image.
- Consider your child’s stress levels. If they get too high, it could be an indication that their sporting environment is too pressured or that their decision-making is being influenced. When feeling overwhelmed, trapped or controlled, your child may be vulnerable to shortcuts that promise to enhance their performance.
- If you have concerns about the environment, the culture of the sport or the influence of others, consider protecting your child by removing them from it.
Understand the threat of supplements
A planned and balanced diet can meet all of your child’s nutritional needs. Supplements, on the other hand, can post a threat to their health. The industry is highly unregulated and there is no guarantee that any supplement you buy is safe or free of prohibited substances. Not only is there little evidence to show that it is safe or effective for adolescents to use supplements, using them to enhance sporting performance can be a gateway to doping. How? It’s all down to behaviour. When children establish a habit of consuming substances for a performance boost, it becomes a behaviour that is likely to remain into adulthood. And this makes them vulnerable to doping.
A food-first approach circumvents this. A varied and healthy diet, particularly one informed by qualified dieticians or sports nutritionists, ensures your child has the nutrients they need without the behavioural threats supplement-taking can introduce.
Recognise threats to clean sport
There are times when rangatahi may need more support and guidance than usual, or when pressure means that they may be more prone to the temptation of doping.
Periods of greater threat include:
- Moving to the next level of competition. Your child may go from being top of their age group or winning a major competition to the next performance level where they come up against others who are as good as or better than them. This can knock their confidence and make them feel like they need an extra advantage. Be there to support your child through this risk period and reinforce the value of determination and effort.
- Performance pressure or expectations and feeling overwhelmed. Your child may be under pressure because they are focused on a significant performance or because they have to manage their sporting career as well as study, work, friends etc. Help your child to recognise and manage stress so that this pressure doesn’t lead to poor decision making.
- Periods of injury or poor form. If your child is injured or is going through a period of poor form, they may be more vulnerable to taking short cuts to achieve their goals. Guide your child through this tough time, emphasising patience and the importance of being a clean competitor.
Understand athlete rights and responsibilities
As your child continues to develop in sport, and especially as they begin to compete and succeed at a higher level, they are more likely to be selected for doping control (e.g. drug testing). At this level, conversations about doping and what it means to be a clean competitor are essential. Be sure that you and your child know whether the Sports Anti-Doping Rules apply, what your clean sport rights and responsibilities are and understand the doping control process.
Sport is a key arena in which our children’s values are developed and tested at an early age. When we are considered and consistent in the way we communicate positive values, we can support our children to develop behaviours that keep them happy, healthy and resilient. This enables rangatahi to navigate challenges without resorting to shortcuts, keeping sport fun, safe and clean for everyone.