Find the Right Sport for a Child Who Isn't Athletic

While many awkward kids steer away from youth sports, they secretly want to play. They see sports as a way to fit in, and they often feel excluded because they don't participate.

By Nicole B. Sperekas, Ph.D.

All of my family members are natural athletes. Except David. He's my cousin. Throughout childhood, he teetered and tottered - and fell. We used to joke that he could trip on air. Of course, he never took up a sport as a youngster and we were very happy about that. We hoped that by the time he was a teenager he would be less gawky.

He wasn't. In fact, he was worse.

When David was 15, he came home one day and announced that he wanted to take skiing lessons with his youth group. His mother, with great trepidation, gave him permission.

The kids would go to the mountains for 10 Sundays, take lessons in the morning, have lunch together, and then ski on their own for a couple of hours before returning home.

That first Sunday, his mother sat by the phone all day, sure that she would receive a dreaded phone call telling her that David had broken his leg. The call never came. Upon his return, she asked him, "How did it go?

"It was a blast!" David said.

Over the next few years, he became a very good skier; he even made Ski Patrol. Always a klutz who would fall off a stepladder or trip over a hose and sprain an ankle, David has never so much as twisted a knee when skiing. Now in his 40s, he skis often with his own children.

David's story taught me a lesson - even uncoordinated kids with no natural athletic ability can learn to play and enjoy a sport - if it's the right one for them! I learned that lesson again as a swim team coach when I saw children who were non-athletic on land, swim like fish in the water.

Over the years, I've also come to realize that while many awkward kids steer away from sports, in fact, they secretly want to play. They see sports as a way to fit in, and they often feel excluded because they don't participate. Yet they refrain from taking up a sport because they don't want to embarrass themselves in front of more athletic siblings and friends.

If you have a child like David - rest assured there really is a sport for him. The trick is to find one that gives him the best chance for success without too much initial frustration. Success here means learning a sport, being with other kids, getting exercise and having fun.

Your goal is not to turn a minimally athletic child into an Olympic athlete or prospective pro. It's enough that he or she has fun participating in a physical activity that's good exercise - perhaps continuing to play into adulthood or becoming a knowledgeable fan.

Encourage Your Child to Try

Kids who see themselves as uncoordinated may have closed their minds to sports. Ask them gently whether they're still interested in learning a particular sport. Often, a child will respond that she wishes she could play but feels uncoordinated and doesn't want to make a fool of herself. When this happens, parents can:

  • Point out that not all children who play sports are natural athletes. Talk about any childhood friends you had who played sports even though they weren't particularly athletic. 

  • Suggest to your child that she can play. She just needs to find a sport that matches her abilities. Remind her that a lot more goes into sports participation than sheer athletic ability. Good coaching and instruction, a willingness to practice, and a positive attitude are essential. Analytical or tactical skills are also important; outthinking your opponent is a highly valued maneuver in sports.
  • Consider your child's sports interests, social skills, temperament and emotional makeup. Look into what individual and team sports, coaches and leagues are available in your area that accept and work with children of all athletic abilities.

If your child has a particular sport in mind, it's wise to begin looking into that sport. Interest and motivation count for a lot, and even minimally athletic children can learn and perform the basics of many sports on a beginner level.

What's the Right Sport for Your Child?

If your child wants to play a sport but has no idea which one, begin narrowing down the options. Is there a sport he seems to follow on TV? Does he always go to a friend's soccer games? Is her best friend taking tae kwon do lessons and has she gone with her to watch? Was Uncle Jack a fencer in his youth? Maybe he'd like to give some pointers to his niece.

Learn about the different sports your child is interested in and consider whether his physical and psychological traits match up with what you've learned. Researching sports is easy. There are books to read and instructional videos, TV coverage, and local sporting events to watch. Involve your child in this process; done right, it can be fun for both of you.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

Think about the child's physical abilities, specifically his gross and fine motor strengths and weaknesses. Sports can generally be divided among gross and fine motor skills.

- Gross motor sports, such as volleyball, tennis, basketball and running, require good coordination of the arm and leg muscles.

- Fine motor sports, including archery, billiards and target shooting, require good eye/hand coordination and dexterity of the hand and finger muscles. Some sports require both gross and fine motor skills, such as lacrosse, golf and bowling.

Consider how strenuous a particular sport is and how much physical contact is involved. For example, swimming is a strenuous sport with little or no physical contact with other swimmers. Golf is not particularly strenuous, and there's no physical contact involved. Football is strenuous and physical contact is very much a part of the game.

Keep in mind that, at the beginner level, many strenuous sports limit physical contact and require less energy. Tee ball, touch football and half-court basketball are examples.

Still, a child with physical limitations may do better in a non-strenuous sport. Keep in mind, too, that while some kids like the idea of playing an aggressive and physical sport, others shy away, afraid of getting hurt. Gauge your child's comfort level.

Does the child have the patience and ability to learn sports that are more technique-driven? Good technique is required at advanced levels of all sports. But even at the beginner levels, certain sports require more attention to technique than others. In diving, bad technique will result in belly flops every time. Your child may be able to drive a golf ball farther than any kid his age, but poor technique can send that ball into the water, a bunker, or the woods. Archery and tennis require an emphasis on technique early on. Swimming, soccer and football don't - at least not initially.

I believe that all minimally athletic kids can do well in technique-driven sports. The problem, however, may be their temperament. Technique-driven sports require more patience to learn and more attention to detail. A child without these traits who's also not naturally athletic may find the sport boring and difficult to learn.

Is the sport complicated, with many different variables to keep track of? Most team sports require a player to monitor his own play and keep an eye on teammates and opponents. Basketball players must be able to dribble, pass and shoot the ball, while also dealing with defenders trying to block or steal the ball.

Contrast this with swimming. All a swimmer has to do is to swim laps as quickly as possible. Yes, swimmers in a race must track their competitors' progress, but overall, they just don't have as many things to do or think about.

Team or No Team?

Many non-athletic children believe team sports are more fun and will gravitate toward them even if they're worried about having limited abilities. Being included and fitting in is a powerful pull for them.

There are beginner teams or leagues where everyone plays, no matter what his or her athletic ability, and winning isn't emphasized. Look for these teams when introducing your kids to sports.

Keep in mind that since team sports usually have more variables to focus on at any one time, they may be more difficult for very young and uncoordinated children. But don't despair if your uncoordinated child is adamant about playing. In some sports - basketball, for example - even coordinated children will get hit with the ball or have it roll between their legs!

Social skills come into play more with team sports, and a child lacking in these skills may find team sports taxing because of it. That doesn't mean he shouldn't play a team sport; it just means he may struggle at first, until he learns how to socialize comfortably.

Many kids who aren't naturally athletic actually prefer individual sports; there aren't 30 of their peers looking on or counting on them to make a play for the team. Some minimally athletic children may even prefer an off-the-beaten-track individual sport that few of their friends play, such as fencing, badminton or archery.

But individual sports can be more expensive to learn, and most require one-on-one or small-group instruction. A number of individual sports are often taught in a team setting - swimming, wrestling and tennis, for example. Some children may not like having an audience, but it can be nice to experience the camaraderie of teammates while learning a sport.

I like to recommend tae kwon do or swimming as individual sports. Tae kwon do class sizes are small - eight to 10 kids per instructor. Instructors proceed slowly, teaching the moves in a slow, repetitive style. Kids of all athletic abilities can progress quickly and often receive the next-level belt within one or two months of starting.

Similarly, a good swim instructor and coach can help an uncoordinated child learn to swim gracefully, with little effort. In any case, whether or not your child goes on to win matches, meets or medals, these aren't the sole measure of her success. She'll become competent at the sport for life, gain some self-esteem and make some great friends.

Getting Started


Once you've identified a sport that seems right for your child, and that your child is interested in:

  • Look for introductory lessons, or join a team that emphasizes instructive play, not winning. For individual sports, try to find an instructor who offers a block of lessons - for example, eight to 10, for a flat fee.
  • Make a pact with your child to complete a block of lessons or a season as a beginner in a particular sport.
  • Check out the instructors or coaches. Make sure they have a special knack for working with young kids, and that they like teaching beginners the fundamentals.
  • Prepare your child in advance for the likelihood that other kids may catch on more quickly than he does, so that he won't feel discouraged.
  • Buy any required sports equipment second-hand, or rent it. Make this exploratory phase as easy on your budget as possible.

Finally, be prepared for some trial and error. Despite your best efforts and research, the sport you and your child pick may turn out to be a total failure. While disappointing, this is OK. Try to figure out what went wrong: the sport, the instructor or the team? You may have to move to the next sport on the list, or look for a different instructor or team. But you and your child have probably learned a lot in the process and you can apply this knowledge to your next attempt. Most importantly, never underestimate what your uncoordinated child can do. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Playing sports is a great way for children to get exercise, meet new friends and have fun. Sports help build character - the importance of doing one's best, perseverance and determination - and teach responsibility. With parents' help, all kids - even the clumsy and uncoordinated - can find a sport that fits them to a T.


Just Let The Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child's Fun and Success in Youth Sports, by Bob Bigelow, Health Communications, 2001. A landmark book on how competition, over-scheduling, pressure and adults' expectations can make or break a child's sports experience.

Kids & Sports: Everything You and Your Child Need to Know About Sports, Physical Activity, and Good Health -- A Doctor's Guide for Parents and Coaches (Newmarket Parenting Guide) - A Doctor's Guide for Parents and Coaches, by Eric Small, M.D..

Whose Game Is It, Anyway?: A Guide to Helping Your Child Get the Most from Sports, Organized by Age and Stage, by Richard D. Ginsburg, Ph.D., and Stephen Durant, Ed.D., with Amy Baltzell, Ed.D., Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Gives parents a clear idea of kids' skills and maturity in sports at different ages; explores parental pressure, over-scheduling, specializing in one sport and more.

National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS)  - A good resource for parents looking for instruction in both individual and team sports for beginners. All programs sponsored by NAYS have nominal fees. NAYS also sponsors an online course for volunteer parent coaches.

National Institute for Sports Reform  - Works with parents, coaches and leagues to bring about positive changes in the rules and culture of youth sports.