What can sports shops do to entice the younger generation? And if children are not interested in sport, what can be done to reverse the trend? John Bensalhia looks at the alternatives
Remember the days of sports at school? When you’d be terrified of being picked last for the football team. Or having to run across freezing fields during the cross-country run.
Well, it’s arguable that today’s children have an even tougher time when it comes to sports participation - especially if they don’t like sports. This is a strong possibility for a number of reasons. For one thing, there is still the persistent problem of bullying and lack of confidence among the young. Sports such as rugby and football are based on team play, and if a child is shy or has difficulty interacting with other people these sports will hold no interest for them. These children may feel physically self-conscious or uncomfortable about taking part in team activities if they are afraid of public humiliation, injury or failure.
On that subject, David Hemery, the winner of the 400m hurdles in the 1968 Olympic Games, and a member of the British Olympic Committee, has commented on this point. He argued that youngsters need to be empowered, and that parents, teachers and coaches should take the time to listen to what children have to say. “Children who are more empowered are more likely to take advantage of sports,” says Hemery.
More significantly, Hemery argued that a key factor in this empowerment process was the acknowledgment of losing and not taking part in sports purely to win: “Without loss, there is no learning,” he says.
With that in mind, it’s possible to get children who are not interested in team sports interested in a sport that isn’t based on competition. There are many sports activities that are not based on competition, for example, cycling, running or martial arts - which is a particularly good choice if the child is lacking in confidence. Regular martial arts sessions such as judo or karate will allow youngsters to both keep fit and gain a growing sense of confidence.
Children’s own needs should be respected when it comes to their sporting likes and dislikes. For example, if a girl is interested in football or a boy is interested in dancing, neither of these should be disregarded. The women’s FA Cup Final is now a regular staple on TV, as is Strictly Come Dancing, which has shown a burgeoning popularity for both men and women. Just warn your kids off Bruce Forsyth and his prehistoric jokes, that’s all.
Parents can also do a lot to emphasise to children that a healthy mind and body are just as important as each other. They should also encourage them by pointing out the benefits of sport, such as exercise and (if they like team sports) team building.
One of the most useful ways of getting a child interested in sport is to take the youngster to the nearest sports facility in the area. For example, if there is a local sports centre, take them along. Likewise, if there are any gyms, swimming pools or recreation areas, these are good introductions to sport. Of course, the best place is the local playing field, where kids can practice any sport they wish with a lot more scope to move around than the average back garden.
So what can sports shops do to attract young customers? There are many sports shops available that cater for youngsters, and also more general toy shops that feature a special sports department, such as Toys R Us. Many of the sports shops sell associated clothes for children, such as JD Sports or Route One. One thing that most children have in common is hero worship. Even today, young football fans want to grow up to be like Wayne Rooney or David Beckham, or young girls want to be as successful as the two Olympic Rebeccas - Adlington or Romero.
Despite an awful lot of adverse media attention, especially with football and rugby stars picking fights, getting drunk in public and behaving like juvenile layabouts, there are still other sports stars that do command more respect. So a good method for sports shops to promote apparel is to put up posters of sports stars in these clothes, so that youngsters can identify with them. A lot of sports stars have entered into lucrative deals with some of the big guns in the sports industry anyway, so by heavy promotion, more children may be inclined to spend their pocket money on these endorsed items.
On the subject of pocket money, it’s also worth promoting special offers on clothes and accessories for children. That way, children will feel that they are getting a good deal and do not have to shell out huge amounts of money beyond their means. Another method is to promote the goods through a special event or a fun day - although it is worth getting both the pitch and the target audience spot on. Slightly older children do not feel that they want to be talked down to or patronised, so the walking, talking man in a carrot outfit won’t cut the mustard.
Special events that promote sports - say, specially organised football or cricket tournaments - will get the young ones interested. It’s also worth tailoring these events to topical sports news at the time. So when the World Cup’s on promote the latest footballs and football kits for kids in the shop windows. Likewise, during the Wimbledon season, promote the latest tennis racquets, balls and clothes.
One thing that sports shops do need to do is identify with youngsters’ main sporting interests, but also with what they would not be interested in. Sports such as football, rugby and tennis tend to have more of a universal appeal across all ages, as do non-competitive sports such as running and swimming. However, sports more traditionally linked with older ages, such as golf, may put the younger ones off, so it’s worth playing to the market and promoting the sports goods that children will be most interested in.
Whether or not children will be interested in sport is entirely a personal decision by each young individual. There will always be those who don’t have an interest in team games, but will have more of a hankering for individual sports activities. By greater education, from parents, teachers and also the media, children can make their own decisions and develop their own personal interest in sport - and that way, hopefully, the sports shops will be welcoming in their customers of tomorrow.