Balancing Sports Life

How To Support Your Child On And Off The Field

By Michelle Bourg

Whether it’s Pee Wee Soccer, Little League or “Friday night lights,” youth sports are an American tradition. And that’s a great thing: in addition to providing the physical benefits of exercise, it’s been consistently shown that kids’ involvement in sports boosts self-esteem, improves academic performance, reduces the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors and teaches important social skills, including teamwork, goal setting and emotional resilience. Nurturing your child’s involvement in sports offers definite benefits, but also demands active parental planning and involvement to maintain a balance with other aspects of growing up. For parents of young athletes, maintaining that balance is almost a sport in itself.

Preschool: Time for Informal Play

Youth sports today may actually be the true “national pastime” with lessons, teams and leagues available for children practically from infancy. 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 toddler classes, such as swimming, dance, martial arts or gymnastics, remembering that at this stage it’s important to keep the emphasis on fun and movement. Classes or games should be short and avoid elements of perfect technique or competition. Encourage your youngster to explore different activities to maintain interest. If he’s not interested, it’s fine to stick with informal play at this stage— 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, children are usually physically and mentally ready to begin participating in organized sports. Ask for your youngster’s input on what sport she’d like to try: She may already have a clear favorite in mind, or want to play on a team with her friends.

But 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 a year 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 is fun and 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: Building Character Traits

Middle school can be a critical time for determining if a child continues an active lifestyle. Academic and social demands begin to ratchet up at this time, and kids often give up being active just when its importance increases. The character lessons of sports, particularly those of discipline and dealing with adversity, are especially valuable now, and the camaraderie of even “solo” sports gives kids a sense of belonging. Student athletes also tend to have better grades, higher achievement levels and more positive attitudes toward school.

Now you’re working together with your child to strike a balance between athletics and other priorities. Create a schedule as a family that includes your child’s various commitments. Discuss with your child how to best manage his or her time and if obligations aren’t being met, work together to reset priorities, bearing in mind that schoolwork is the primary one and that playing should still be fun.

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.

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