Belonging to a sporting team gives kids more than just exercise

The best part of team sports for kids.
The best part of team sports for kids. Photo: Getty Images

More and more the push is on to be individual. We tailor children's learning to fit the individual. We value individual pursuits. We understand that everyone is different. But what does that do to foster a sense of belonging? How can we build a community if we are all individuals? For my kids, the answer has been sport. 

For the past three weeks there has been a lot of chatter amongst the Grade 2 kids at my children's school about the new Futsal team starting up. In fact there was so much chatter, that 14 kids wanted to join, for a team that only needs five players and a couple of subs. So two teams were started, and now most days, my son wears an item of his new uniform to school.

My kids are at a primary school with no uniform. And they both love being able to wear whatever they like. But what I'm beginning to notice is how often they now choose to wear their local sporting clubs' hoodies as part of their everyday dress. Usually my son loves being the odd one out, and he takes great pleasure in dressing in the most extreme way, except that now that outfit may also include his bright green Futsal socks, or his new white shorts.

What is it about wearing sporting uniforms that kids love? Is it because they are so passionate about the sport and it brings them closer? Or is it just the sheer joy of belonging to something bigger than themselves and their own little friendship group? I suspect that in this age of the individual, most of us want to feel like we are part of something. That we aren't always marching alone, but that sometimes we can run onto a court or a field together.

If we go to the local supermarket after school, my daughter points out various girls she recognises only because they wear the same club jumper she does. She doesn't know these girls personally, they play in different teams, go to different schools and are often a different age, but still they look at each other with a shy glance of recognition and sometimes even a smile. This sense of belonging was very clear to me when we went on high school tours this year. Suddenly it didn't seem to matter so much to my daughter if she had to go to her zoned school without any of her friends, because at the tour she saw a whole bunch of fellow netballers from the same club, wearing the same hoodie.

For children to feel like they belong to something is important. And if it's the same something as their friends, then it takes on even more weight. My son plays for a local AFL club in winter because it's his best chance to see his old friends from kindergarten who go to a different school. He likes the other kids in his team because they are in his team, more than because they have anything in common. The game becomes the equaliser. It's their way to share something, to learn the club song, wear the uniform, and be part of their community away from their family.

Last week at school assembly, I looked across at the 460 kids sitting on the floor and noticed for the first time how many of them were wearing hoodies, jumpers and tops from various local sporting clubs. The grade 5/6 girls were in their navy netball hoodies, with famous Vixens' signatures scrawled across their backs. The Grade 2 boys and girls were in their newly acquired Futsal uniforms, with matching white shorts (in the middle of winter), blue tops and green knee-high socks. The kids in these uniforms were mostly sitting together, in clumps. And it made me wonder how those who didn't play sport felt about never having a visible way to belong to something.

Team sport is about learning to be part of a group and not operate like an individual, and it's an important process for children to go through. It's about learning to tow the line, and to share the limelight, and to work collaboratively. It's about learning to not be the best. But it has other benefits too. And those benefits are about how it makes the child feel if they can turn up to their clubrooms or their presentation night or their final, and look around to see all the people wearing uniforms like theirs, that are all there because they love the game, and because they are part of something together.