Making the most of Youth Sports

When my seven-year-old grows up she wants to be in the World Cup soccer tournament. If that doesn’t work out she wants to be an Olympic gymnast. To help their kids reach these kinds of goals, many parents feel the pressure to push their kids too hard and too fast by signing them up for competition leagues or extra days at the gym.

Sports for kids have come a long way from the vacant lot baseball games that filled their grandparent’s childhoods. With parents and coaches often behaving badly and children suffering from over-training, society is forced to rethink the nature of youth sports.

There are still a lot of positive reasons to involve your children in organized sports. Youth sports can help children get exercise, make friends, learn to play fair, develop self-esteem, gain the social benefits of being part of the team, and most of all, just have fun.

A good youth sports program should be child-centered, not winning centered. Before 8th grade, teams should be made up of mixed skill levels with no “cuts”. There is no proof that forcing “better” players to play with those less skilled keeps them from developing their talent.

What is unhealthy for children is the win at all costs attitude found in professional and collegiate sports. This has led to prima donna players behaving badly with virtually no consequence as long as they produce on the field.

Behavior taught in children’s sports programs can carry over to other aspects of life, for good or bad. A study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that high school student athletes were more likely to cheat on tests or school projects than non-athletes. A majority thought that breaking the rules in an athletic competition was acceptable if you did not get caught.

A better attitude to teach your children about sports is that success is not the same thing as winning and failure is not the same as losing.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent psychology says parents play an important role in the lessons their children will take out of organized sports. Parents should provide emotional support and positive feedback.

After attending your child’s game, take time to talk to your child about the experience. Look for the positive. Help your child to have realistic expectations of his performance and to handle the disappointment of losing. Stay calm and be supportive when your child makes a mistake.
Talk about your child’s experiences with coaches, other team members, and opposing team members. Point out and praise good sportsmanship.

Most importantly, parents need to provide a  model of respectful behavior towards the coach, the officials, and opposing players. Trash talking is not part of the game.

Today’s kids also have to deal with the stresses of over-scheduling and over-training. Over-training is when a child athlete is asked to do too much physically, mentally, or both.

Signs of overtraining from the Boston Children’s Hospital sports medicine clinic:

  • Slower times in distance sports like running, biking and swimming.
  • Deterioration of execution in sports like figure skating or gymnastics.
  • Decreased ability to achieve training goals.
  • Lack of motivation to practice.
  • Getting tired easily.
  • Irritability and an unwillingness to cooperate at practice.

Overtraining of children can lead to overuse injuries to the bone and soft-tissue, sometimes leading to lifelong problems including abnormalities in growth and maturation.

Boston Children’s suggests kids should train no more than 18 to 20 hours a week. Any pain lasting 2 weeks should be evaluated by a doctor.  Children who drop out of sports because of competitive pressure and related mental stress may be prejudiced from further exercise leading to weight problems in the future.

Help your child develop good sportsmanship and enjoy youth sports.  Encourage participation, give support when mistakes are made, and praise good sportsmanship.  Success can be progress in improving skills, greater confidence, and the excitement of competing.

More help for parents with kids in sports at Youth-Sports.