By Julie Christensen
For many families, September isn’t just back-to-school time. Fall also signals the beginning of sports season. Children and coaches fill neighborhood parks and fields, as organized soccer, lacrosse and football seasons start. Over 30 million children enroll in organized sports programs each year, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS). Most of these programs are offered through public recreational programs supported by tax dollars.
Organized sports programs have many benefits. Sports provide a safe, structured outlet to increase physical activity and reduce childhood obesity. Through organized sports, children learn self-discipline, teamwork, ethics and how to cope with success and failure. Children who participate in sports, according to the Michigan State University’s Study of Youth Sports, tend to do better in school, learn excellent interpersonal skills and live healthier lives. But some parenting experts have expressed concern over a win-at-all costs attitude that pushes kids too far, too fast. According to Alvin Rosenfeld, MD and author of The Over-Scheduled Child, parents should provide a balance of playtime and structured activities, maintain a healthy attitude towards organized sports and choose well-trained coaches.
If you find yourself giving up family time to drive kids to practices, or breaking the family budget to pay for sports camps and equipment, it may be time to reassess your priorities. Decide as a family what is most important. Most families would probably rate their priorities as family first, followed by educational, religious, or volunteer opportunities, followed by sports. If sports activities are impacting quality family time or your child’s education, it may be time to pull back.
“My son would play every sport non-stop if we let him,” says Littleton mom Kim Johnson, “but grades come first. We allow our kids to choose one extracurricular activity at a time. It saves our sanity and our budget, and is better for them, as well.”
A generation ago, children spent most of their time helping the family with household chores or playing unstructured games. These activities foster a sense of family unity, responsibility and connectedness. Today children spend most of their time in structured activities, such as sports, or interacting with electronic devices. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least 60 minutes of unstructured playtime daily, preferably outdoors, for children, and has linked a lack of unstructured play to increased depression and anxiety.
Many parents dream of raising a star athlete whose athletic prowess will provide a free ticket to college. The truth is 1 in 56 high school athletes receive an athletic scholarship. Thirty times more academic scholarships are available than athletic scholarships, according to John E. Roberts of the Michigan High School Athletic Association; so encouraging your child to hit the books is probably a better bet.
Of the 30 million children that enroll in sports each year, 70 percent quit playing by age 13. According to the National Sports Coaches Association, the number one reason kids give for giving up a sport is that it stopped being fun. Keep your expectations realistic and make sure your goals are centered on your child’s needs. As children get older, losses and wins take on more meaning and pressure to compete can become intense. Help your child keep perspective by keeping perspective yourself. Instead of focusing on the scoreboard or your child’s performance, praise your child for developing good relationships with teammates, handling conflict maturely and working hard to learn new skills.
Remember that sports are just one part of a child’s experience, and may not be for everyone. Be a good role model for your child by participating in many physical activities, including walking, gardening, hiking or biking. Encourage your child to play casual pick-up games with friends and try several different sports before specializing in one.
Before signing up for a team, spend a few days talking with coaches and other parents and observing practice. Do the coaches focus on winning and points or developing skills and relationships? Many coaches are parentvolunteers who may have little training in recognizing the developmental levels of young children. Just as you would expect daycare providers and teachers to have training in teaching children, look for coaches with similar experience.
Children learn by example. Do coaches abide by a high code of ethics or do they belittle players, use offensive language or encourage cheating? One of the most lasting benefits of sports participation is the development of strong ethics. Good coaches value teaching character over winning games.
Look for programs that emphasize relationships, fun, and skill development. One sign of a good program, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, is a written handbook available to parents. The handbook should contain information on a code of conduct, philosophy and mission statement, and detailed information about how coaches are screened and trained.
Parental attitudes and support are the single best indicators of a child’s success and happiness in organized sports, according to Citizenship Through Sports Alliance (CTSA). Help your children develop a lifelong love of fitness and sports by choosing well-qualified coaches, setting limits and adopting a positive, encouraging approach.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A SPORTS TEAM
The National Alliance for Youth Sports offers the following guidelines for organized teams:
Age 8 and under
• Limited uniforms
• No travel
• Emphasis on developing motor skills
• No emphasis on scores or standing
• Maximum of 1 hour of play per day, three times per week
• De-emphasis on scores and standing
• Focus on learning rules, gaining skills
• Limited travel-no national tournaments
• Maximum of 1.5 hours of play per day, 4 days per week
Resources for Parents
National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) Check out the booklet "Recommendations for Communities," which offers practical implementation ideas for developing good sports programs for all ages.
Citzenship Through Sports Alliance offers a printable Parent's Guide on positive ways to support your child in sports.
Denver mom Julie Christensen write freelance when she is not chasing her kids around the soccer field.
First published in Colorado Parent, a Dominion Parenting Media publication.