As I traveled through the United Emirates, South Africa and Cairo, Egypt I found several striking things that they all had in common as it applied to youth sports: a sense of frustration, poverty, and soccer.
South Africa is a beautiful country that exemplifies the best conditions for an outside active lifestyle. The weather is warm, the sun shines often, and they take their sports seriously. Though I witnessed many kids playing outside, many residents told me they play only a select number of sports due to their lack of access, or introduction to a wider variety of other activities. Their sports of choice are soccer, rugby (for some), tennis, & water sports.
Egypt, a country steeped in ancient history, unfortunately has 90% of it’s population living in poverty, leaving little opportunity for a majority of kids to experience a quality active lifestyle. Their dominant sport is soccer, played by many in the streets, with little access to many other sports or activities due to the expense and lack of exposure to other activities.
United Emirates love to watch all types of sports from soccer to golf, tennis, motor sports, horse racing, cricket, rugby, etc., yet they participate in very few. The majority of active participants are “foreign transplants”. Many I talked to claimed it was the heat that prevents kids from being as active as they should be, therefore they stay inside. But a closer look unveils that it is quite pleasant 6 months out of the year.
The three most common reasons I believe such a large number of kids are inactive worldwide is as follows:
All three areas of the world that I traveled had a high percentage of inactive kids. Many people in these countries are critical of the younger generation’s “laziness”, a subject that frustrates older generations and leads to apathy. Like our parents, we often approach and attempt to solve our children’s problems without sometimes fully understanding the contemporary world kids are growing up in today. We must respect their fast paced world of information flow, and technology, in order to fully understand how their minds work and how they’re motivated to play and be active.
All three countries have an issue with poverty, but no one quite has it like Egypt. Many Egyptians explained to me that children would love to play different sports yet they cannot afford the equipment, or access other activities (such as the water/beach, lessons, equipment etc.). The poorer areas of both South Africa and United Emirates made similar claims.
Now I do believe that soccer is a great sport to play. I like soccer, and have nothing against the game. Outside the United States the love & obsession for the game, and the easy access to play anywhere, have made the sport the most popular in the world. At each stop along this Middle East and African tour I found dozens of soccer games on television throughout the day. They live & breath soccer, but there lies the problem. The love and obsession they have for the game of soccer has actually harmed each generation that has grown up with the sport. Many people in every country I visited pointed out that “There’s too much soccer, that’s all kids play.”
One of the main reasons I’m in these countries is to introduce kids to athletic development through different sport disciplines. If soccer is one of the only sports and athletic activities that you partake in, it can create generations of one dimensional athletes. When you ignore the development of the upper body and how it coordinates with lower extremities, you create generations of imbalanced athletes. And from a kid’s viewpoint, if you don’t provide the experience of variety, or options to participate in other activities, many lose interest in remaining active for the rest of their lives.
Now solving these issues would involve the large undertaking of changing lifestyles and culture. Something that won’t happen overnight. However if these countries ever want to reverse obesity, and turn kids into active individuals, they may seriously want to consider introducing individual type sports.
One sport that comes to mind and has limited expense, can be accessed in many different places, and develops many important athletic/movement skills, is skateboarding. If you have pavement or a hard surface, and can access a board, helmet and pads, you can skate on the streets for years learning tricks, developing agility, balance, coordination, strength & stamina.
The other sport that balances the athletic development of the upper with the lower body is tennis. The access of tennis rackets and balls would allow kids to again play on any hard flat surface, and even small space areas against walls. The tennis industry would be well served to introduce the sport in the same manner soccer has throughout the world in small spaces on streets worldwide.
Different cultures around the world need to leave their comfort zone and the familiarity of what they grew up with and try new things if they want younger generations to lead healthy, active lifestyles. The same holds true for the United States. We must expose kids to many different sports and activities, then provide access through our schools, communities, and at home.