Regardless of natural ability or level of athletic competition, nearly every child has some experience with sports during childhood. Many participate for the pure joy and fun of the sport. Others play competitively in hopes of making the high school team, playing in college or one day becoming a professional athlete. In any case, participation in sports offers children tremendous health, social and developmental benefits. Children who play sports not only have a regular opportunity to engage in physical activity, but they also develop life skills including leadership, teamwork, self-discipline, cooperation and how to overall be a “good sport” whether the game is won or lost. With that said, kids love physical activity when it is fun! As soon as a sport is no longer fun, or a child is pushed in a direction that he or she resists, the benefits of playing sports slowly slip away.
You can set your children up for a successful experience with youth sports by asking yourself the following five questions before filling out the next youth-league registration form:
- What are my child’s greatest athletic strengths? Is it a remarkable ability to run far distances? If so, soccer may be a good place to start. Is it increased strength and bulk compared with his peers? In this case, football could be a nice fit. Is it a fearless drive for constant stimulation and an adrenaline rush? Depending on where you live, you might encourage your child to try mountain biking or snowboarding (always wearing the appropriate protective equipment, of course). Is it really good hand-eye coordination? If so, how about baseball or softball? The key is to guide your child toward sports that are most likely to boost confidence and provide a positive experience.
- Does my child gravitate toward team or individual activities? Team sports help children develop social skills and leadership abilities, while individual sports help a child to build self-confidence and self-reliance. A child does not have to pick one or the other. Many kids thrive in both team and individual sport environments.
- Am I pressuring my child to play a particular sport because it’s my favorite? It is a natural tendency to encourage your children to play the same sport you grew up with and still love to watch and play. But remember, not everybody has the same interests—even if the child is 50 percent your genetic makeup. As your kids get older, give them the opportunity to pick which sport(s) they would most like to try out. Try to avoid encouraging a child to specialize in one sport too early. Not only does this increase the risk of overuse injury, but it may unnecessarily limit a child’s ability to develop other skills, while also taking some of the fun out of the sports experience.
- What is my child’s level of coordination and skill? If a child is strongly resisting playing a particular sport, it may be because his or her skill set is different from what is required to do well in the sport. Brush it off and give your child the opportunity to explore other types of sports and physical activities.
- Is my child having fun? The goal of sports participation is to have fun! Try to resist the temptation to try to raise the next the Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. When a child becomes too specialized too soon, the game stops being fun and deprives the child of other equally enriching experiences.
When helping your kids choose which sports to play, take extra care to help facilitate their overall positive experience with sports, while also recognizing it is not possible to shield a child from all uncomfortable experiences. Sometimes, parents need to step back from the game and refocus on what is most important for their children—the opportunity to increase physical activity, build relationships with friends, and develop gamesmanship, a competitive spirit and self-confidence.
By Natalie Digate Muth
Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDNatalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD is the Senior Nutrition Consultant for the American Council on Exercise, a community pediatrician, registered dietitian, mom, and author of “’Eat Your Vegetables!’ and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters.”