Research and Enterprise

Will kids return to play?

After five months of unstructured sport at home, PlayStation and YouTube, children are going back to school and it’s time to start getting them engaged in sport again. But how can PE teachers, sports centres and youth coaches get kids excited about getting their heads back into the game? Dr Sergio Lara-Bercial, Reader in Sport Coaching, explains how we can make sport a more positive experience for kids.

A group of small children playing with footballs on a pitch

The COVID-19 lockdown threw youth sport into disarray. Literally from one day to the next, school was cancelled and locked gyms, fenced off playing fields and empty swimming pools covered the length of the country. Not a pretty sight.

Now for some kids this was actually a blessing in disguise. Working from home, home schooling and the heat wave during April and May made it possible for children and their parents to spend a lot more time playing outside than ever before. Our local park was packed with families donning their team colours, Wimbledon whites or showing off their brand new shiny bikes.

Unfortunately, for some other kids this situation translated into endless hours of PlayStation, YouTube and Disney+ and minimal amounts of daily physical activity. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not about vilifying those kids or their parents. On certain days, those kids have been mine and I have been that parent.

And to be fair, those kids have thoroughly enjoyed themselves – at the peak of lockdown, PlayStation parties were the only place they could get their social interaction from and how they managed to stay connected to school friends and family.

A football boot resting on a ball on a football pitch

Can sport compete with free-range play?

This post is about whether youth sport will be ready to re-engage these children as lockdown eases across the world. For five months these kids have either played lots of unstructured sport with friends and family or enjoyed countless hours of dopamine filled videogames. Do we think that youth sport can compete with the thrills of unadulterated, free-range play?

Of course I do.

Now, sport is going to have to work hard to show kids that it is worth switching off the console or iPad, tying up your laces and heading outside to the footie club, the athletics track or the netball court.

Will kids tolerate long lines, running through cones and sitting on the bench? Why should they?

Over-structuring and “adultifying” youth sport will kill it.

Yes, I know, some kids will still enjoy that. The more capable or more competitive children will continue to thrive in these traditional environments. But our target is the other 99% who may think sport is not really for them and never go back…

Three tennis balls on the ground of a tennis court

Get your head in the game!

Research has continuously shown that children do sport for three primary reasons: to have fun, to be with friends and to learn new skills.

This will be never more important as youth sport returns to play. How well does your club or your session ensure that EVERY child is having fun, making friends and learning?

Achieving those three outcomes is not an easy feat though. That’s why we feel that the work we are doing with iCoachKids and the collaborations with UEFA, World Rugby or FIBA to support youth sport coaches world-wide is more important now than ever.

An empty athletics track displaying the numbers on each lane

Coaches – take the iCoachKids pledge today!

As we return to play, I’d like to challenge coaches to take the iCoachKids Pledge – the 10 golden rules for positive sport experiences. And to think about which of these rules will be more important in the early stages of return to play:

  1. Be child-centred
  2. Be holistic
  3. Be inclusive
  4. Make it fun and safe
  5. Prioritise the love for sport above learning sport
  6. Focus on foundational skills
  7. Engage parents positively
  8. Plan progressive programmes
  9. Use different methods to enhance learning
  10. Use competition in a developmental way


You can also watch the iCoachKids Pledge video:



The stakes are high and the time is now!

Dr Sergio Lara-Bercial

Professor / Carnegie School Of Sport

Sergio is a Reader in Sport Coaching. A former Team GB coach Sergio has extensive international experience in the development and evaluation and coach education systems. He has also conducted research into High Performance Coaching and Positive Youth Development. Sergio is the director of the globally acclaimed iCoachKids project.

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