Supporting Your Child On and Off the Field
By 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’ self-esteem, 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 it also demands active parental planning and involvement to maintain a balance with other aspects of their growing up.
Preschool: Time for Informal Play
However, up until the age of 6 or 7, kids’ bodies, motor skills and powers of concentrations 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 as you 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 avoid elements 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 he or she would like to try: He or she may already have a clear favorite, or want to play on a team with friends.
While signing up for too many activities of any kind can overload anyone, it’s a good idea during this period to try over the course of a year at least two sports that each 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 or she is on the small side physically, football or soccer may not be the best sport, at least for now. If he or she is still working on coordination, tae kwon do or a “big ball” sport such as soccer may suit him or 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. It’s easy at this age 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
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, and the camaraderie gives kids a sense of belonging. 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 before now, as opposed to a competition or path to a scholarship, this may not happen. But if it does, again, accept it. The important thing is that physical activity remains a part of their life in some way, whether it’s intramurals instead of junior varsity, independent league play 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.
The Concussion Conundrum
In recent years, new data on both the frequency and the effects of concussions and traumatic brain injury (TBI) for participants in contact sports at all levels has raised concerns over the appropriateness of these sports for players under age 18.
The concerns are not unfounded: a study by the National Academy of Sciences has shown that high school athletes, especially those in the sports of football, baseball, soccer, hockey and lacrosse, are almost twice as likely to suffer concussion as players at the college level. More than 5 percent of high school athletes are concussed each year while participating in contact sports, and high school athletes are three times more likely to experience a second concussion if concussed once in a season.
At the high school level, awareness of the problem has led to stricter safety guidelines covering play and practice procedures and equipment specifications. Coaches and support staff are frequently more adequately trained to recognize and deal with concussion issues in their players. However, any recommendations do not have the force of law, and actual practices can vary by location. When making decisions for their children, parents need to weigh the risks against the definite benefits of sports participation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has instituted the Heads Up program to help coaches, trainers and parents recognize, respond to and minimize the risk of concussion or other serious brain injuries. To learn the symptoms of concussion, what to do in the event of brain injury and how to talk to your teen about these injuries, visit cdc.gov/headsup.
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.