Teach Your Child to Love a Sport

What you need to know so that your budding athlete always feels like a winner.

child playing golf Alexandra Grablewski

It didn't take long for my son to find his bliss. At 2, Eric loved taking swimming classes. By 3, when I gave him the choice of going to the pool or playing at the park the water always won. By his fourth birthday he could swim basic freestyle and rudimentary butterfly. Eric is 8 now and he's still at it -- the first one in the pool at the start of team practice and the last one out at the end. Not only does swimming bring him joy and keep him fit, but his teammates are also his best buds, and he's learned how to win (and lose) with dignity.

Like Eric, many children today are introduced to a variety of sports before they learn to read. A few years ago, he tried different sports (soccer, baseball, basketball) at day camp and in casual classes. Swimming simply rose to the top over the others, although he also enjoys tennis and golf when it's not swim season. He's right on schedule, say experts, who agree that 7- and 8-year-olds often take it to the next level by joining a team and developing a steady passion for organized sports.

"Loving a sport will teach children vital life skills -- discipline, motivation, commitment, and cooperation," says Laurie Zelinger, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist in Cedarhurst, New York. However there are some potential rough patches to work through -- from choosing the right sport, to finding a nurturing team and supportive coach, to learning to watch from the sidelines without making your kid anxious. We've amassed a playbook of strategies to help kids get in the game and thrive -- win, lose, or draw.

Help Her Master the Basics

Most preschoolers aren’t ready for organized team sports, pediatricians say. They’re still learning fundamental motor skills, and getting those motions down is critical for excelling at sports later. If your child focuses on specific skills like batting and kicking before she masters skipping and jumping, she might struggle with running and balancing efficiently. This can make it harder for her to advance in the sport and possibly lead to injury. 

Getting your child outside for at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day will give her time to master the basics. Some activities can be adult-led, but unstructured play, where she calls the shots, is best. She’ll get a good workout just running around a playground and climbing on equipment. Keep your child excited about exercise by changing activities and thinking outside the ball. Swimming and tumbling are good, age-appropriate options, and dance lessons, riding bikes, and hiking as a family all count. 

    Don't Overdo It

    Sports are such a big deal that sometimes parents can go too far. Some encourage an intense focus on a single sport at an early age, while others enroll their child in four activities at once. However, both approaches can backfire, cautions Tina Syer, associate director of Positive Coaching Alliance, in Mountain View, California. "Too much monotony -- one sport several times a week plus weekend matches -- can make it feel more like a job than a fun activity, but too much variety can leave her too busy to learn to love any one of them." What's the magic number? At this age, kids should play two or three sports a year, so they get a broad range of skills, says Daniel Gould, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University in East Lansing. As they get older, they can decide to cut down or stay the course.

    Keep It Low-Key at Home

    If she pulls the T-ball tee out to practice swinging, encourage her but don’t turn it into a heavy-duty lesson. A few at-bats might morph into a game of hiding the ball, which is fine. Just make it fun and support her interest by using the time to play and move. And don’t worry that skipping sports now will set your child up to become a bench warmer. Starting in elementary school or later can produce top athletes, especially if they’ve been active during childhood.

      Give Him a Say

      Assuming he's tried out a few things over the last couple of years, your child has probably developed some preferences. Ask him what team he'd like to join -- you may be surprised by his response. "Parents often put their child in the same sports program that his friends are in, but that's not always the best approach," says Dr. Zelinger. If your son hates soccer, for instance, or isn't good at it, he could feel like a failure, and may resist trying other sports.

        Explain the Real Commitment

        Before sign-up day, make it clear to your child that she must participatefor the whole season and that if she doesn't enjoy it, she can try something else next time. It's reasonable to expect a 7-year-old to see a season through from start to finish; this is the age when kids are learning responsibility in school too. "Some kids may want to quit after two practices if they're struggling or it's harder than they expected," says Glenn Kashurba, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Somerset, Pennsylvania. "But if they stick with it for a while, their skills will improve and they might like it enough to play another season."

          Find the Right League

          If your 3- or 4-year-old has his heart  set on a team sport, first do your homework. Scope out several leagues if you can and watch a few sessions to get a feel for the tone. Preschool sports should be more like play than a lesson or drill. A T-ball league might focus on running or skipping while incorporating a ball. Coaches should emphasize fun, socialization, and key motor skills. 

          It may be easiest to start with a big-ball sport like soccer, since most preschoolers are still developing coordination. Pay attention to the skill level of the other players. If they are way above your child’s level, he may not enjoy it. Even if he falls in love with one sport, he shouldn’t play it year-round. Repeated strain on the same muscles can increase his chances of injury. Also, research has shown playing multiple sports can make kids better at all of them, because of the crossover in skills such as teamwork, ball passing, visual tracking, and agility. 

            See the Big Picture, Not Just the Score

            When children show talent at this age, some parents daydream about college scholarships -- and then push their kid to the brink of burnout with private coaching and travel teams. "Many people forget why they wanted their child to play a sport in the first place: for social, emotional, and physical development," says Dr. Gould. If you put too much emphasis on winning or rankings, he may get stressed out and fear letting you down. Instead, show interest in your child's overall experience by asking open-ended questions such as, "What did you learn at practice?" For every mistake you want to correct, give five specific comments about what your kid did right. ("Rotate your right shoulder" is more effective than "you can throw harder.")

              Cut Comparisons

              It's normal for kids at this age to measure themselves against their teammates and opponents. But because of age cutoffs and mixed-age divisions, kids often compete against others who are nearly two years older, and that can mean significant height, weight, and skill differences. Unfortunately, when 7-year-olds realize that they're not as good as their 9-year-old teammates, they may get down on themselves and want to give up. "Everything can change once kids hit puberty," Dr. Gould explains. "Some kids improve, others will get worse, and there's no way to predict how it will turn out." Remind your child to focus only on her own performance and not on other kids'. If she plays an individual sport, encourage her to log her times and scores, so she becomes accountable for her progress throughout the season. But also help her learn to handle errors when they do occur in order to avoid a meltdown mid-competition. Consider developing a "mistake ritual" to help her move on after a blunder. "Raise your hand, make a fist and then bring it down, as though you're flushing a toilet -- or flushing away the mistake," suggests Syer. Tell your child that nobody's perfect, everybody makes mistakes (especially while learning new skills), and you're proud of her for doing her best.

                Six Warning Signs of Burnout

                With weeknight practices and weekend games, is your child getting pushed to the brink?

                  1. She doesn't talk about the sport anymore.
                  2. He makes excuses to skip practice.
                  3. She shows no excitement before competition.
                  4. He seems tired all the time and isn't sleeping well.
                  5. She shows signs of depression -- loss of appetite, nausea, and headaches.
                  6. He avoids team activities away from the field.

                  Source: Cynthia R. LaBella, M.D., chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.

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