How inclusive are sports in the UAE?

Time Out Kids hosts a gathering of sporting minds to discuss the cost of getting children to do more exercise

How inclusive are sports in the UAE?


1. Mushtak Al Wasti
Founder of All Star Sports.

2. Alex Collins
Head of PE at Nord Anglia International School.

3. Mark Gaitskell
Managing director of My Sports Academy.

4. Roger Nicholson
Director of sports, JESS.

5. Emer O’Doherty
Writer with Time Out Kids and mum of two children.

6. Carolyne Allmark
Writer with Time Out Kids and mum of two children.

7. Lisa Campbell
Founder of Ultimate Athletics.

8. Liliana Orejuela-Márquez
Mother of two children and keen runner.

9. Neil Allmark
Dad of two and volunteer founder of a girls’ school football team.

10. Dr. Sarah Rasmi
A Canadian psychologist and professor with a passion for supporting families, Dr. Rasmi is also mum of two.

Carolyne Allmark: When it comes to clubs and activities in the UAE, there are all sorts of options, but how do we get kids to exercise without breaking the bank?
Lisa Campbell: We always offer a free trial because it is expensive and a lot of academies want you to pay for the term, which is sometimes a year in advance, without having even tried it. It makes parents more confident that the kids are going to enjoy it without wasting money. We also offer make-up sessions if a child has to miss a session. We say you can come on a different day of the week and try to be flexible.

Emer O'Doherty: Which sports do you feel are most beneficial to children?
Mark Gaitskell: I would be putting my children into a variety of sports. You can take things from team games, invasion games, and also from sports like gymnastics. A variety is really important. In terms of the financial side of things, as a company we recognise where the market is now in terms of people's disposable income. There’s so much competition out there in terms of sporting providers and I’d advise parents to do their research. Lots of companies offer free trials but it’s also important you do your research into the quality of the service on offer, rather than just look at price and convenience.
Liliana Orejuela-Márquez: As a parent you need to be very clever. At a certain age children just need PE lessons, but when they get older, you see talent and it becomes more important to train outside of school.
Mark: Teaching and coaching is very different and they both supplement each other really well.
Roger Nicholson: There is a difference between primary and secondary sport. In primary, you want to give as much opportunity as you can and let the children try a range of different sports to see what they like and what they’re good at. In secondary, you naturally want to narrow things down so if they do want to commit and focus on a particular sport then they can.The links with the clubs outside of school is really important in having that opportunity for a good level of support. The schools out here are trying to put more teams on, but there are pressures within that in terms of staffing and facilities.
Alex Collins: At Nord Anglia it used to be that they just had one team for everything and everyone who didn’t make the team was left behind in the mix, but this year we’ve got A and B teams and if they don't make the B teams, we direct them to an outside college.

Emer: What are the developmental benefits of PE and sports to children?
Roger: The first point is you're trying to teach the children physical literacy and all of the fundamentals that they can translate into other things. In the last 10 years, there’s been a real fear of failure for children – there’s a nervousness about exposing children to failure. Sport is one of the main things out of primary and secondary levels that allows kids to experience disappointment and PE and sport have a real role to play in creating resilience in children.
Mushtak Al Wasti: The number one thing that we see is not talent, it’s how children interact with each other – getting them to gel with people they don’t know is the challenge. After that point you get to see if the kid has talent. Getting them to accept a team dynamic is hard.
Sarah: I think it’s really important that we balance a recognition of progression with not just showering everybody with extreme praise. Children need the opportunities to fail in controlled environments when they're growing up rather than going to university and suddenly realising they aren’t perfect at everything.
Lisa: It’s the parents, especially with athletics. The kids will look at their parents when they get their results and you see their reaction in their faces. I always get the parents to share the results with the child, rather than where they have placed, because you’ll find that they are progressing and improving their personal bests.
Roger: In sport it’s important to reward the effort rather than attainment. I’ve had teams that have won by 50 points but haven’t played well or have lost by 10 points and it's the best game they’ve played. Recognising the effort is crucial.
Alex: We are trying to get away from extrinsic rewards like medals and think more about how they have improved from the last game.
Sarah: Focusing on the progress rather than the outcomes creates a thicker skin and children who are more successful. Research shows we are more likely to continue doing things throughout our lives if we are doing it for us and for our own progression rather than comparing ourselves to others.

Emer: In Ireland there was a huge drive to look at the social side of sport and how it benefits the community. How can that be done in schools here?
Mushtak: PE or sports teams are huge in Canada, it’s part of society and you’re expected to do this. Here, it is an after-school activity for an hour or so. Having a sports community makes a big difference.
Liliana: As a family we want to get fit together. I think it should be a family effort. As a parent sport is a priority, it’s all about being social and making friends.
Sarah: One of the best ways to teach our children to enjoy sports is to model that behaviour, too.
Roger: The expat parents have a really strong role in getting kids involved in sport. Children follow adults and parents have a huge role in this, especially from inclusion. But we have to try and get everyone and all abilities involved.
Mushtak: The only way to counter this is to get Arab coaches. You get Arab coaches, you get Arab kids. The Arab kids love football but often their concept of the sport is dictated by video games and TV.
Neil Allmark: I think it’s got to start with the parents, and parents have got to be so much more productive. Kids will follow their parents. The most conversations we’ve had about the kids’ development is around the sports. The school can deal with the maths and the science but it is us that encourage the sports. The kids need to understand not just that they’re doing a sport but what they’re doing a sport for. Knowing your ability level, the effort you have to put in, not to mention the health benefits, is really important.

Emer: Our sport is run by volunteers in Ireland. We have a community spirit. Is there a spirit of volunteerism in the UAE?
Lisa: Not really. There aren’t the facilities. The tracks and the sporting facilities all need to be paid for and there isn’t the public space for us to do it here.

Carolyne: We obviously want to encourage our kids but how much is too much when it comes to sport?
Liliana: At the primary age you can see the talent but you don’t want to put them in a box too early because they might have other skills. I don’t let them specialise until they are 12 or 13.
Lisa: You need to find out their long-term goals and find out what else is going on in their life. If they can step it up to two or three times a week that’s where we would expect them to be at 13, 14, 15.
Sarah: I think a really important thing to do is have that balance between having that active time and also having time to relax. We need to encourage our kids to have downtime. These days they are really overscheduled and one thing we don’t always realise is that we don’t give them an opportunity to learn how to manage time themselves.
Roger: We have some dedicated time at lunch times and after school. Parents seem to have them doing tutorials, music, other sports. We’ve got to get the sport better in the UAE and not just in schools. If we could get it better then the parents wouldn’t have to look elsewhere all the time. The challenge as parents and professionals is keeping kids involved in not just in sport but in activity. The fundamental thing has to be how as adults we keep our children healthy and if they don’t like sport it’s fine, but we have to get our children active.
Alex: I’ve pushed the curriculum to the parents to show them what we’re doing but the parents don’t trust your experience and your professionalism. We started streaming by ability at Nord Anglia and I believe once that’s in place, children will enjoy that much further. The children are enjoying working with others of similar ability, sometimes it’s the parents who want their children to be in the top group.
Neil: It becomes an advertising piece to show how good the school is.
Mushtak: If you look at the North American model, the number one thing is spotting talent at an early age and the only way to know this is by exposing them to different sports and you don’t get that in the UAE. We need to know what their base talent is. The UAE isn’t mature enough as a market. Who are the best academies going to compete against?

Emer: How can we keep non-sporty kids active?
Roger: To get more children involved you have to find out what it is they want to have a go at, the parents have to encourage them and keep ticking it off until you find something. In the UAE, there’s not enough open space to play. We’ve got a running track and cycle track,
but where can the kids go and play? I can’t organise something where I live without getting permission from four sets of people. If the UAE is serious about promoting health, it needs to spend some money on facilities. We’ve got a mindset to change.
Alex: Look at sport, are we creating any international players? I don’t think we are, apart from swimming. Because with football for example, they aren’t playing in the streets, they aren’t playing every day.
Sarah: When we were younger, we did go on bike rides and kick the ball around because we had less structured time.
Mark: Kids aren’t asked enough what they want to do and what they want to play.
Lisa: The kids we have don’t particularly like invasion games and competitive sport but they’re doing it for their own personal satisfaction and progress. There are different body types. You can have bigger people doing the shot put and those types of events. Everyone can get involved.
Mushtak: We have no competition here. It has to be diverse competition.
Lisa: We have a responsibility to show them as teachers and parents what’s out there. The UAE is a bubble.
Mark: I think there is talent here, it’s giving them the platform and the opportunity to develop that we need to concentrate on. There’s too much choice and not enough regulation. Imagine the amount of football providers here – and there are people in compounds without licensing and insurance and it dilutes and spreads everything so thin.
Sarah: It’s really good to have other opportunities besides the teams in schools where you can just go and kick the ball around. At around 13, there’s the identity development and the body changes and girls in particular become very self-conscious about particular things. We need to empathise with what they’re going through and try and support them. At the end of the day, the clubs are expensive and parents think if the kids don’t like it, well, too bad. That is the fastest way to kill somebody’s interest, not for that particular sport but in general. Having some flexibility can re-develop their interest.

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