Being forced to do sports at school caused long-term trauma for one kid as experts call for change

Stock image of child running in a school sporting event
Experts are warning of the severe long-term impacts mandatory sports can cause. Photo credit: Getty Images

Experts say forcing children to participate in mandatory school sports can have serious long-term impacts on their mental health and in some cases destroy their relationship with exercise.

Bob Trevathan, now 24, was known by his friends in primary school as the "fat chubby kid".

He hated sports, and despised the annual cross-country event held for his year group.

"I was never good at sport but I was always made to do it," Trevathan told Newshub. "I was miserable the whole time.

"It felt awful because my friends would run together and I would track behind, I never had anyone to walk with and it was lonely," he said.

Every time he was forced to do sport, he said he felt "embarrassed" and "just wanted it to be done".

Bob Trevathan
Bob Trevathan was never good at sports during school and despised being forced to participate. Photo credit: Supplied

Trevathan said mandatory sport continued into his intermediate years, where he was made to do a beep test.

"The beep test was torture, I had to do it in front of everyone in years 7 and 8," he said.

And now, he said it's caused long-lasting anxiety for him, even as an adult.

"I feel so anxious if a friend asks me to go for a run, I feel like they are gonna talk about it behind my back and laugh."

Umbrella Wellbeing's clinical psychologist Dougal Sutherland said it's common to see long-term impacts from the pressure to participate in sports.

"For many people I've spoken to, forced participation in sport has been a really difficult thing for them, particularly in their adolescence," Sutherland said. 

"It can lead to an ongoing and really strong dislike towards both sport and people that are strongly associated with sport and sporting culture.

"For kids who might not be physically well coordinated or not enjoy it at all, there will be repeated experiences where this happens.” 

Cross-country is likely the experience to stick in most people's minds, he said. But it can be tripping over in the playground or falling over in a game of netball - "anything that comes as a constant reminder that you're not good enough."

So how do we encourage children and adolescents to participate in healthy activity without forcing it down their throat?

Sutherland compared mandatory sport to being forced to give a speech in front of your class over and over again, despite hating it.

"Not only is it something you'd have to do, but you were made to do it in front of other people and it was a competition where you were ranked," he said.

"How do you think that might affect your adult life and do you think it would change your attitude to just simply picking up a book and reading in your spare time?"

He said adults would not feel inclined to do sport if it has negative memories associated with it.

Professor of Health and Engineering at Waikato University Holly Thorpe believes childhood sports should be a place of fun, fitness and friendship rather than athletic performance.

"A lot of people can be excluded just because they aren't great at that sport," Thorpe said.

However, she said there are ways to help ease the long-term effects.

Thorpe said her child's cross-country event was a positive experience for everyone, with no sense of competition.

"It was a fun day out, they were on the beach with a backdrop of sand dunes, the music was out and the whole community was down there really encouraging that participation," Thorpe said.

"A couple of kids even had their parents walking or running alongside them, and everyone saw it as just a fun day out," she added.

She said the social environment of the race was very different, and that it wasn't about the winner or who came in second and third place.

"There are ways to do sport and physical education differently that can be inclusive and fun," she said.

She also suggested the alternative of a rainbow run, a fun way of sport that many children enjoy.

"It's like a fun version of cross country, kids get coloured corn flour thrown on their white clothes," she said, "They come through at the end looking like rainbows."

"We want to really be teaching those kids that it's okay to make mistakes, we need those learning environments to be safe."

Thorpe said the option to have fun while doing exercise helps kids to have a healthier and more positive relationship with sport.

Mandatory sport can lead to serious long-term effects in some adults

Trevathan said the bullying he received as a kid through mandatory sport, caused him to want to lose weight as he grew older.

"I wanted to be one of those sporty kids so bad, people just don't look at you the same," he said.

"The skinnier and fitter people were always treated differently."

Trevathan said back then, he wanted to lose weight to fit in, but now he does it to feel healthier and to fix his relationship with exercise.

"Now I go for walks by myself and I've managed to get a small circle of friends who have convinced me to start going to the gym," he said.

He said joining the gym has been a big factor in fixing his relationship with exercise.

"You think people will judge you but really, everyone is at different stages.

"If people look at you at the gym it's because they want to help you, not because they are making fun of you."

In several high schools with swimming pools, water safety is implemented into the curriculum.

Thorpe believes it's important to learn to swim with the rate of drownings in New Zealand, however, she said it's just another reason some adults have been put off exercise.

In some cases, students were asked to get fully clothed and jump into a pool to see the likelihood of survival if they were to fall off a boat or into a pool.

"Creating that environment can be really toxic and it can cause that social comparison, especially in young women in particular," she said.

Thorpe said being forced to swim in front of people could create body image issues, damaged self-worth and a lack of confidence.

She also said work needs to be done to provide more cultural safety.

"People from different cultural, ethnic, religious backgrounds are going to have different feelings about wearing togs at the school pool, for example, or particular uniforms that are too revealing of the body," she said.

Building a positive relationship with sport from a young age

Sutherland said schools need to take a different approach to sports so kids aren’t put off. 

"I would like there to be a wider range of opportunities available for kids so there's something for every individual," he said.

He said schools need to work on their response and support towards children who find physical activity difficult.

"We need to encourage the amount of physical activity in a way that doesn't leave them feeling ashamed, silly and left out," he said.

He believes mandatory sports can promote a culture of bullying.

"Historically, sports have often had a bullying aspect to it, that at its worst, if you weren't very good at that you could get beaten up," he said.

"So for some people, it's more than just the activity, it's the culture that has come with it, and that needs to change."

"I think it's important we all come to terms with what else goes on with sport and physical activity at school, which in most cases is a lot," he said.

However, Thorpe acknowledged the effort she had seen to change mandatory sports in some schools and clubs across the country.

"We would like to think that children growing up today in New Zealand are not having the same experiences forced sport that we had as children, but unfortunately not everyone's on board with that."