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Preparing kids for the real world of sports is a fine balancing act

In his first Test series representing his nation, the legendary Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar looked at his shirt and it was bloody. A leather ball travelling very fast had dented his nose. As his autobiography Playing It My Way recounts, a banner fluttered: Kid go home and drink milk. He was 16 years old.

Sport is not a pretty place. It is absent of make-up and no rouge can hide the bruises. Sometimes it's almost scary how we treat our young. Fu Mingxia, the elfin and elegant diver who won Olympic gold at 13, lived 950km from her parents and saw them twice a year.

Sport doesn't allow you to be a kid for long, it's part of the deal you make with ambition. We're naturally inclined to protect our young from sports' less salubrious parts - greed, cheating, arrogance - and we should, but if we coddle them too much we leave them unprepared for a hard life where football managers forge fairytales and still get fired.

So we want to teach kids the values of sport yet arm them with toughness. We wish them to be sporting and yet rugged. We'd like them to play for the thrill of human achievement but also for the glint of a trophy. What we seek is balance.

I write this because the Singapore Sports School and some parents have been caught in a minor kerfuffle over whether students should return prize money and gifts to the institution. An agreement has now been reached, yet as I reflected on money, schools and kids, three points came to mind.

The first is that even as we might yearn for amateur codes, at a sports school we must train young people for a professional world. We wish them to be modest in manner but also to stand out. We look to produce highly competitive, well-formed young people who know how to win and also manage their finances. Sport has too many terrible tales of poverty and bankruptcy.


Kids learning how to play table tennis, a sport they might not pick up on the basis of money. Paddlers may get US$100,000 for winning a big event, but it's 28 times less than what tennis stars can earn for a Major victory. ST FILE PHOTO

The second point concerns fairness. Some sports award prize money to young athletes and other don't, and so one way to avoid kids thinking that their sport matters less is to ensure no one gets to keep any money. But life is unfair and so is sport. Goals go in off the post and net-cord points win matches.

Kids should know that sport is an unequal business, loaded with class systems and rife with disparity. Tennis players get A$3.7 million (S$3.97 million) for winning the Australian Open and table tennis players earn US$100,000 (S$139,935) for victory at the World Tour Grand Finals. Golfers know fame and judokas rarely meet it. Footballers are mobbed and rowers ignored.

Even as we might yearn for amateur codes, at a sports school we train young people for a professional world. We wish them to be modest in manner but also to stand out. We look to produce highly competitive, well-formed young people who know how to win and also manage their finances. Sport has too many terrible tales of poverty and bankruptcy.

Even in their own nation, some sports will matter and others will barely earn an inch of newsprint. Unfair is the athletes' daily bread but you can't protect them from it, only prepare them. If athletes picked sport only on the basis of money, no one would shoot or canoe. If footballers earn more, good for them.

The third issue with prize money for kids involves a basic debate: Should money and prizes be the aim of young athletes? Many insist their pursuits should be noble and their focus pure, their attention on discipline and never on dough. As if it will corrupt their concentration and make them forget why they wanted to play sport in the first place. Love, perhaps?

Of course, kids should play for the joy of it all, the thrill of the contest and the profound sense of achievement at flying over a high jump bar. They should play to find themselves and to feel the grand satisfaction that arrives when practice turns into improvement. They should play for that moment when they realise that if you blink back sweat and push on, stuff just happens. These are the best parts of sport.

But so is winning. That's why they play, too, to stand on podiums and rise above. They play to stoke a competitiveness and search for excellence and sometimes winning is the proof of that. They play because they're trying to learn how to overcome themselves and yet overtake another. If winning is a reward in itself, then everyone also likes the stuff that comes with winning. The prize.

People play for many things: a bottle of milk at racing's Indianapolis 500 and a cobblestone at the Paris-Roubaix cycling race. And when kids return from an event with a prize, whether a vase or a camera, they might put it on their desk and look at it. I won that!

And, of course, athletes also win money. Perhaps it is unseemly for schoolkids to play for dollar notes, but if they're there we should let them have it. Or at least most of it. After all, money is going to matter in their lives and they must gradually appreciate that. Money is going to decide where they train, who trains them, how often they compete and whether they can afford to keep going.

The little money they earn as kids won't change their lives or pay every bill and will be kept by their mothers. But the money carries a strong symbolism for it is earned, it is slogged for, it is real. It is not their solitary motivation but perhaps a tiny incentive. And thus to take it all away is to demean their sweat.