Cons & Pros
One indication that the current state of sports participation may be problematic is that 70% of kids in sports leagues hang up their cleats by age 13, according to a study from Michigan State University in East Lansing. Researchers are divided on how to explain the dropouts. Some say attrition is inevitable, that there will be an ebb and flow as children sample many sports and activities. But others view the rush of kids leaving the court or field each year as cause for alarm. Many are walking away, they say, because they're frustrated by ultra-competitive leagues and by coaches and parents who put winning first.
It falls to parents to keep the games in perspective. "Once in a while, a Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky comes along and goes through his career without failing. For the rest of us, the key is enjoying the journey, whether we're winning or losing," says Damon Burton, Ph.D., a professor of physical education who specializes in sports psychology at the University of Idaho in Moscow. We talked to professionals and parents for pointers on how to handle some of the stickier aspects of youth sports.
Finding the Perfect Sport
When you were a kid, sports options were probably few. Now, many schools and community centers offer everything from in-line hockey and fencing to golf and tae kwon do. Overwhelming, sure, but variety can work in your favor. Experts say parents should encourage young children to sample a range of sports to see which ones they enjoy most.
"In the beginning, there's real physical, psychological, and social value in having kids try multiple activities," says Jordan D. Metzl, M.D., medical director of the Hospital for Special Surgery's Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes in New York City and the author of The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor's Complete Guide for Parents. "Physically, children develop different skills, like hand-eye coordination and endurance, and work a variety of muscles. Psychologically and socially, they're seeing firsthand the benefits of individual vs. team activities and they're making friends from different groups," says Dr. Metzl. In fact, research has consistently shown that children's self-image gets a boost when they have positive sports experiences. One University of Washington study concluded that kids who play for coaches who praise their effort often feel better about their sport and more confident about themselves away from the field.