2018 Education Guide
How to Support Your Child On and Off the FieldBy Michelle Bourg
Whether it’s Pee Wee soccer, Little League or “Friday Night Lights,”youth sports today may actually be our true “national pastime” with lessons, teams and leagues available for children practically from infancy.
That’s a great thing: in addition to providing the physical benefits of exercise, studies consistently show that sports boosts kids’ selfesteem, improves academic performance and reduces the likelihood of risky behaviors. It also teaches important social skills like teamwork, goal setting and emotional resilience.
Nurturing your child’s involvement in sports offers definite benefits, but also demands your involvement to help them maintain a balance with other aspects of their growing up.
Preschool: Time For Informal Play
Up until the age of 6 or 7, kids’ bodies, motor skills and powers of concentration are still developing. For the first couple of years of your child’s life, just getting outside and having fun together will give everyone plenty of exercise and allow you to model an active lifestyle. At this stage, your balancing act as a parent is to maintain equilibrium between the freedom of unstructured play and the structure of organized activity.
At around age 3, you can introduce your toddler to classes such as swimming, dance, martial arts or gymnastics. Remember to keep the emphasis on fun and movement. Classes or games should be short and focused on participation instead of perfect technique or competition. Let your youngster explore different activities to maintain interest. If he’s not interested, just stick with informal play—there’s no evidence that participation in preschool sports enhances development or activity levels later in life.
Grade School: Getting Your Feet Wet
At around age 6 or 7 years old, children are usually physically and mentally ready to begin participating in organized sports. Ask your youngster what sport she’d like to try: She may already have a clear favorite, or want to play on a team with her friends.
While signing up for too many activities of any kind can overload anyone, it’s a good idea during this period to try at least two sports over the course of the year. Each sport should emphasize different skill sets. Playing one sport exclusively can contribute to stress injuries and lead to burnout on sports and physical activity in general. Mixing it up actually contributes to higher levels of success in an athlete’s primary sport.
When choosing a sport, consider your child’s physical and mental attributes. If he’s on the small side physically, football or soccer may not be his best sport, at least for now. If she’s still working on coordination, tae kwon do or a “big ball” sport such as soccer may suit her better than tennis or softball. Quiet and reserved kids may prefer an individual sport such as swimming, track or golf to the rough and tumble of team sports.
Whatever sport your child participates in, competition should remain secondary to having fun, staying active and learning the fundamentals. However, this is also a good time to instill the value of commitment. Unless they’re experiencing genuine distress, ask them to play for a full season—usually only a few weeks at this age—before quitting.
As a parent at this time, you’re finding the balance between encouraging participation and forcing it. It’s good for children to have the chance to find a sport that they’ll enjoy, hopefully for a lifetime. At this age, it’s easy for kids to want to stop if things don’t gel right away, but listening to your child will tell you if they should try something else or walk away altogether. If that happens, accept it. Remember that it’s not about you.
Middle And High School: A Pattern For The Future
Middle school is a critical time for determining if a child continues an active lifestyle. The character lessons of sports, particularly those of discipline and dealing with adversity, are especially valuable now. The camaraderie of even solo sports also gives kids a sense of belonging. Studies show that student athletes also tend to have better grades, higher achievement levels and more positive attitudes toward school.
But this is also when demands on kids’ time ratchet up, and many kids quit sports, saying, “It’s not fun anymore.” Almost 70 percent of student athletes quit by age 13. If you’ve focused on sports as something to be pursued for fun and personal fulfillment, as opposed to a competition or path to a scholarship, this may not happen. But if it does, again, accept it. What’s important is that physical activity remains a part of their life in some way, whether it’s intramurals or just putting down the phone and the books to kick a ball with you on the weekend.
High school is the time to let your child take the lead in balancing sports and the many other priorities facing them on the threshold of adulthood. You may want to plan a calendar together at the start of the school year that includes games or tournaments, test dates, college applications and other known obligations. But then step back and let them learn to manage their time. If sleep, family time, or grades suffer, then it’s time to step in. But learning to prioritize their goals and find a way to achieve them is the first step toward success, both in college and beyond.
Ultimately, you want your child to be healthy, have fun, and build the character traits that help them succeed in life off the field. Keep this in mind and you’ll succeed in the balancing act that is parenting a young athlete.