For a country with few people, why is NZ so strong at sport – Part 2

The Second World War played a massive role in New Zealand’s impetus in its search for a sense of national identity. At that time, the population was only 1.6 million, yet 140,000 served in the war and 11,928 lost their lives. The ratio of killed people per million (6684) was the largest among the Commonwealth Nations. During this period, sport declined as there simply was not enough bodies to fill the teams and petrol rationing made travelling to sporting events difficult.

New Zealanders were proud of their involvement in the 2nd World war

The end of the war heralded a baby boom, as newly independent New Zealand threw a lot of its energies into sporting participation. The increased mobility as a result of the motor car made travel easier, and the government actively encouraged sport to play the major role in everyday life. The Department of Internal Affairs employed welfare officers to encourage mothers to become fitter, and physical education teachers were trained to engage un-coordinated children in weekly gymnastics classes and take sports teams out of normal school hours. The introduction of the 40-hour working week made Saturdays free for sport, and virtually full employment made sports affordable to the masses. It was during the period of time that became the “heyday” for sports clubs with families spending a great deal of their free time down at the local sports clubs. If the young were not coached at school, they were coached at the local sports clubs.

From this base of sporting engagement, the strength of New Zealand sport grew, especially when the population started to grow again as a result of the post war displacement, baby boom and Government’s policy of free and assisted passages from Europe. By 1970, the population had grown from 1.6 to 2.8 million people.  Since this time, the population has steadily risen to today’s number of 4.6 million, which has included the migration of South Sea Islanders bringing even a greater size, pace and skill into New Zealand’s sporting environment.

The climate and landscape are perfect for young children to be running around, and getting children to participate in sport at a young age is just a natural thing for New Zealand families, as it has been passed down the ages. The route to participating in sports is seen as a natural progression amongst the population. New Zealanders are encouraged to participate in sport from an early age, and today over 54% of school children participate in school sport, so there is certainly a national identity with sport. However, throughout the developed world there has been a global reduction in sport participation amongst the youth, as modern technology has given adolescents other areas to spend their leisure time.

Phillip Smithells lecturing Physical Education at the University of Otago

New Zealand is no different, but they have been pro-active in trying to halt this trend. In 2016, the Sport New Zealand released a talent plan, and the major objective was to keep children playing sport for as long as possible. In order to do this, they stopped representative sides in netball at the U12 and U13 levels. They felt that specialisation in one sport at a young age was not a good thing, and the youngsters should develop their transferable skills.

Although winning was seen as important, it was more essential for the young people to be focused on the development of the skills they had been learning. The priority was to take pressure away from the youth until they reached their late teens in this way maintaining the numbers who were participating.

It is clear that the sporting authorities in New Zealand know their population well, and their attitude towards sport is that it starts with the mass participation from the very young age. Already it is quite clear why there is such a close correlation between New Zealand and success at sport.

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