Daniele Aarhaus says a lack of organisation and support from parents, as well as inflated prices for use of sports clubs, harms the development of the country's youth.
An expatriate mother of three laments sporting culture in schools
Sitting on a wooden bench at the side of the field, Daniele Aarhaus was passionately involved in her daughter's football game, animated as she cheered for Delaney and her teammates from the Greenfield Community School. They were playing against GEMS International in the new Dubai Schools League.
Aarhaus was also passionate about what she sees as a lack of support for the team from other parents.
"I am really disappointed in the parent participation," Aarhaus said, without taking her eyes off the game. "There are no parents. I can't believe this. I am the only one that comes. It just shocks me no parents come."
Aarhaus is an exception in this part of the world. As an expatriate from Arizona, in the United States, she comes from a different sports culture where it is common for parents to be on hand to show support as their children participate in different physical activities.
She knows that her attitude is different from many parents in the UAE, and she has been criticised by friends and fellow parents.
"Sports is not big here and people just don't push their kids," she said. "People think I push Delaney because she does track and field, swimming and soccer. But you need to be a well-rounded athlete and then, as you get older, you realise what sports is good for you and specialise in that."
A physical education teacher from England who works at a government school in Abu Dhabi agreed with Aarhaus about the benefits of being a well-rounded athlete.
"There is a direct correlation between sport and an increased educational aptitude," said AS, who asked that his name not be used because he feared upsetting his bosses. "I was trained to deliver the most basic PE lessons that took into account the developing of a child's agility, balance and co-ordination in order to fully develop the 'whole' child physically.
"This is not the same here, because if it were, children ... would be exposed to a wide range of PE lessons that didn't teach them the rules of the sport, but the skills to utilise in a similar range of sports.
"For example, the skills to play games [like football, basketball etc], the skills to participate in co-ordination sports [like dance] and the skills to enjoy sports that develop balance [like gymnastics]."
Aarhaus, who also has two sons, said there were negligible sports programmes at her children's previous school. The one in Greenfield is better, she said, but still not good enough.
"We would like our children to get a partial sport scholarship for college [in the US] to help pay," she said. "We would like them to get an academic scholarship and a sport scholarship. So we want Delaney to be very broad in sports. She could do it in swimming or she could do it in soccer."
In the US, Delaney, now 14, played football for a travelling team — a highly organised elite youth squad with coaches and a schedule that involves going to play other top teams, often at considerable cost to parents in terms of time and finance.
"But here in the UAE it is not as easy to play; it's not as organised," Aarhaus said. "There's not as many games and they don't train as much. Back home we practised three days a week and then had a game every week. It's harder here. They don't play as a team very often.
"We have been very disappointed in the UAE with sports. Other than that, we like the UAE. If you want to play sports outside of schools, it's very expensive. But then if they are going to play for the schools, it's not organised. So it's very hard.
"If the schools would become just more organised and have the sports in the schools, that would be great."
She also encourages Delaney and her two brothers to be involved in exercise outside of organised sports; just that evening, she had instructed her sons to walk from school to their Green Community residence rather than being picked up by car. She thinks there is not enough attention paid to the overall health of children here.
"They look at all the food we serve in cafeterias. OK, you eat better, but if you still sit in front of the TV all day, it does nothing for you," she said. "You are just slimmer, but your heart is still weak, your lungs are still weak and your muscles are still weak. It bothers me."
AS, the physical education teacher, said the UAE needs a change of sporting culture and attitudes, involving both the parents and schools, if the country hopes to achieve its goals of healthy living.
"As recently as this week, there was a tournament organised by a local company to encourage children in Grades 1 to 3 to play some competitive, organised sports," he said. "It was for two hours on a Thursday. It was free to enter, the children would all receive a T-shirt and a medal and it would be at an excellent facility.
"Unfortunately, not one school was able to take up this offer. Some of the reasons cited were that they were met with resistance from their principal, who did not want the children playing, parents who were not willing to drive their children to the matches, and a general lack of enthusiasm from the teachers because they knew they would have to do all the work."
Attitudes like that, he said, create a barrier to better sports in our national schools.
"It seems that for schools to get together and get involved in sporting events for the benefit of their children, there must be a decree from above, ie the Government," he said.
"Until they expressly state that schools should encourage their children to take part in sporting events, especially when it's free, any initiatives or attempts to provide sporting opportunities, either in or outside school, will fall on deaf ears."
There are various sports facilities that children could use outside schools - at clubs and sports schools - but Aarhaus believes these have been priced out of the reach of most families in the UAE.
"There have to be avenues that the average people can use," she said.
"The [Western] expats are considered the more well-off or something, but there are tons of lower income families. Those kids deserve just as much to play as any other kid. It's impossible for those families.
"It's funny because they are all concerned about our weight and health and yet they don't promote sports, which is the absolute best way to keep in shape.
"It's a lifelong goal. If they would promote more sports and make it affordable, more families would get involved."