Providing positive sporting experiences for children

Dr Narelle Eather’s research is providing positive sporting experiences to children from an early age to help them achieve life long health and well being.

An accomplished sports woman who has represented Australia in netball and OzTag, Dr Narelle Eather’s research is driven by her desire to help people be active and healthy.

The physical education lecturer is focused on producing exercise programs and strategies that have real world applications and in particular methods for improving children’s physical fitness.

Dr Eather’s latest project, the MASTER coaching program, funded by a Hunter Medical Research Institute project grant, aims to enhance children’s physical, psychological and socio-emotional health and well being through positive sporting experiences.

Dr Eather says that 65% of children enroll in junior sport each year, however as they come into the teenage years they tend to drop out of sport.

“We know kids enjoy sport when it’s positive but they are dropping out for two main reasons; as a result of them not enjoying it and because coaching practices aren’t meeting the needs of players,” Dr Eather said.

The MASTER coaching program addresses this problem by helping coaches improve their skills and confidence, and in turn create positive experiences for children playing sport.

“It’s often the case that parents without any formal training are thrust into coaching positions for their children’s junior sports teams. This project focuses on helping those people make the training environment a positive one. Some turn out to be excellent coaches, but it’s common to see coaches yelling at children, continually picking up on and focusing on their mistakes, or shouting out sideline instructions,” Dr Eather said.

“This takes the decision making process away from the child and doesn’t allow the child to learn through trial and error. Our philosophy in the MASTER coaching program is that success is to just ‘have a go’. We want children to try new things, be creative and come up with new solutions. Allowing the children to learn through mistakes builds some understanding of why it worked or didn’t work and that’s really important for success in sport.”

The program uses the MASTER framework that has six evidence-based elements targeting the fundamentals kids need to enjoy the sporting experience and to also learn and develop through sport.

“There are two things we target in the program – how to create a positive experience and the game based coaching practices. Teaching through games is most effective and engages kids more. They become better players when they are encouraged to think strategically and problem solve,” Dr Eather commented.

“Through helping coaches provide a positive experience for children we then impact on the children’s experience and their potential to stay in sport and be active for rest of their life.”

The program has been piloted with netball teams in Newcastle and will be rolled out further to soccer clubs and primary school teachers as a professional learning workshop via the Department of Education. The program is also embedded in an undergraduate physical education course for primary and secondary pre-service teachers at the University of Newcastle.

Hitting fitness at work

Can you improve the health, well-being and work productivity of sedentary workers with just eight minutes of exercise three days a week? That is the question that Dr Eather is focusing on in her National Heart Foundation funded project that tests the impact of high intensity interval training (HIIT) on office workers at the University of Newcastle.

The ‘Work–HIIT’ project builds on Dr Eather’s involvement in the ‘Burn to Learn’ study which focused on using HIIT training to improve the fitness and cognitive outcomes of adolescents in senior high school, the ‘Uni-HIIT’ program which tested the same theory in university students, as well as her PhD study ‘Fit 4 Fun’ which promoted health and physical fitness in primary school children.

“Through this past research our team found that even with just eight minutes of HIIT exercise three times a week there were significant changes to the participant’s cardiovascular and muscular fitness levels,” Dr Eather observed.

The ‘Work-HIIT’ program participants will exercise for eight minutes three times a week while their heart rates are monitored.

“The key to this training is that they need to be working at 85% of their maximum heart rate for short bursts (e.g., 30 seconds), interspersed with rest periods (e.g.g,30 seconds rest). iPads used during the sessions show the participants their heart rates which helps them push themselves during the work periods.”

“I am are testing whether we can encourage workers to leave their desks for just this short amount of time and do the exercise. To help motivate them I have incorporated variety and choice into the exercise program because new evidence shows that people are more motivated in their workout when they can choose what they want to do and the workout varies,” Dr Eather noted.

“We know HIIT training works for children, adolescents and young people. I want to know if it will work for older, time-poor workers. If it does it will be a program that can be picked up by any employer for use by their own staff.”

Dr Eather, a recipient of University of Newcastle Women in Research Fellowship, says that she is excited to have been given the support that will allow her to focus on her research goals.

“As an early career researcher it is nice to be recognised because often as a female in this line of work you have things other than your research you must juggle.”

“This fellowship will allow me to continue building my track record as a researcher, help me with project tasks and provide support for future grant applications, which is invaluable.”

Encouraging girls in sport

Dr Eather is also on the research team of the award-winning lifestyle program

Dads And Daughters Exercising and Empowered (DADEE) that the NSW Government has invested $2.4million in for a statewide roll out.

“It’s fantastic to see this program which was developed here in the Hunter spreading across NSW, and potentially Australia, through a range of sports. It’s one of the hopes you have as a researcher when you have an idea and you test it and it works,” Dr Eather said.

The program is the first of its kind to teach fathers to be agents of change for daughters. Research findings show that DADEE has successfully improved girls’ self-esteem, resilience, sport skills and physical activity levels as well as spurring greater interest in playing sport.