Back to school time not only signals the start of early morning wake-ups, homework and bag lunches, but fall sports season as well. About 20 million American children ages 6 through 16 play organized community-based sports, and about 25 million youth play competitive school sports. These are huge numbers- 30 to 45 million kids’ ages 6 through 18 participate in at least one school or community-based athletic program.
According to Marianne Engle, Ph. D., a sports psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at the NYU Child Study Center, sports participation is a major factor in the development of most American children. She states “The gains are numerous. Research has shown that sports contribute to psychological well-being by reducing anxiety and depression and enhancing self-esteem. In sports kids find a social milieu that can promote a spirit of social interaction, cooperation and friendship. Sports help kids think critically and solve problems, build self-discipline, trust, respect for others, leadership and coping skills, all of which form the foundation of character building. Sports have also been shown to improve academic and occupational outcomes, lower school dropout and deter delinquency. And, of course, sports develop the mind/body connection by strengthening the body and training the mind to use it for action and reaction.”
How can parents take advantage of all this incredible character, physical and sociological development, and still maintain the “fun” element of sports at this level? The tendency is to live vicariously through our kids. For dads, we may relive our “glory days” of high school sports. For moms, they may receive some validation for helping raise successful, strong kids. The cliché of the over-involved parent, pushing their kids into sports and putting a disproportionate amount of importance on the achievements is well-documented. But what if your kids don’t want to play “your sport”? Or what if they don’t exhibit those “superstar” traits insuring college scholarships and pro contracts? Yes, even at 9 years old…
Here’s a list of 5 things you can do to make your child’s participation in sports a positive experience for both you and them:
1) Let your kid pick the sport- So maybe you were “the next big thing” when you played high school football, or basketball, or fill in the blank. You never played volleyball, but now your son or daughter is crazy about a sport that elicits yawns from you. Become a student of the sport. Become knowledgeable about the basics, so you can go out and throw, kick or pass without hurting yourself, or making your kids crack up. This is really all about connecting.
2) Volunteer to coach- At the elementary school level, most sports are in dire need of coaching help. You don’t have to be an expert in the sport, or even have coaching experience. Kids that age are looking for some direction in a friendly, fun and encouraging way. It can be frustrating when you spend time on practicing skills, but when game time comes around, it’s like they never heard a word you said! At times like that, it’s best just to take a deep breath, remember they’re just kids, and laugh.
3) Support the process- Organized sports requires time, practice, money, and yes, even some boo-boos. From elementary school to junior high, kid’s playing time is usually doled out pretty equitably. It’s great for getting “real game” experience. And it’s challenging for coaches sometimes to put kids in when they know it may make the team a bit weaker. So as a parent, its imperative you support your coaches and the decisions they make. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a reasoned, calm discussion, but it’s important for your kids to see your recognition of the coaches authority. No matter how far they go in organized sports, the coaches have to be listened to and respected. It doesn’t mean they have to be liked. But it’s a good life lesson, and consistent with how teachers, adults and administrators should be treated.
4) Don’t be attached to the outcome- So, your kid picks your favorite sport. And you start having visions of all-star teams, college scholarships, and professional success. The cliché of the “nightmare sports parent” is apparent at many playing fields across the country. Whether your kids achieve athletic greatness or not, they need to know that they are valued and loved no matter what level their performance is. In a survey of hundreds of college and professional athletes, they were asked “What is your worst memory from playing youth and high school sports?” They overwhelming answer? “The ride home with my parents”. Those same college athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great, that amplified their joy during and after a ballgame. Their overwhelming response: “I love to watch you play.” How do you want your kids to feel after a game?
5) Be a good sport- Most kids are naturally competitive, and love to win. They aren’t going to win all the time, so helping them deal with defeat is a great opportunity to help them learn to take something positive away from loss. Teaching them to respect their opponents, teammates and coaches when they are angry or sad about the game can help them deal with disappointment in healthy ways. Noting how hard they played, a good pass they made or when they showed good effort can move their focus off the results of the game and onto the challenge and fun of organized sports. Having a good sense of humor and a juice box handy doesn’t hurt.
We all want our kids to be exposed a variety of experiences to see what they really like or love to do. There are a lot of opportunities to sample different sports and activities in most communities. Our job is to make sure they’re aware of those, and put a proper perspective and focus on the activity. Talking about what the sport entails, the commitment required, but most importantly, the fun they can have with their friends. It’s great time of their lives when the biggest thing at stake is what kind of snack they’re getting after the game. Help them to experience that, and they’ll develop a love for teamwork, friendly competition, and perhaps a sport that can give them many years of pleasure and fun.