To Play - Or Not To Play - That is the Question
Given the contemporary epidemic of inactivity and obesity in American children, youth sports are thought to play a major role in improving a child’s health and welfare for his or her future. Not to discourage parents from enrolling their child in youth sports, but present-day youth sports has its critics and potential downfalls. Criticizers see these highly popular children’s activities as plagued by major problems. Concerns have been voiced regarding the highly competitive nature of youth sports and it is often argued that young athletes become injured or burnout as a result of excessive stress and pressure. Others believe that children are thought to learn inappropriate behaviors such as aggression or poor sportsmanship from their involvement. Also, a major problem is that if a parent is too involved in their child’s early specialization this could lead to dysfunctional parent/ child relationships. This article is meant to show benefits in youth sports and educate parents on keeping a child healthy and interested in youth sports.
Some of the many benefits of a child’s early involvement in sport and early specialization include:
- Learning physical skills. Young athletes learn both fundamental motor skills (e.g., running, jumping and hopping) and sport-specific skills (e.g., how to putt a golf ball or shoot a jump shot in basketball). These skills can also be transferred to other sports and leisure activities, promoting increased participation and involvement.
- Appreciation of fitness. Two of the motives for participation identified by children are “to get exercise” and “stay in shape” (Ewing & Seefeldt; 1989); participating in sports offers this benefit.
- Sense of belonging. Another strong motive of participation is social interaction. Sports can provide peer interaction through both teammates and healthy competition (Weiss & Stuntz, 2004).
- Sport allows children to grow and mature as individuals. Moral development, discipline, self-confidence and self-worth are taught through sport.
- Mistakes and losing are often made in sport; however this is a “safe” place to make them. Learning resilience at a young age will help them throughout life.
Excessive stress, injury, being burnt out, along with other negative aspects of youth sport can be avoided. Here are some simple ways to avoid putting too much stress on athletes and creating problems.
- The thrill should be competition, not winning. For many youth sports, parents’ idea of fair teams is an anomaly. Stack the team. Get the best players. Annihilate the competition. This couldn't be further from the truth. Athletes need to be challenged and put in tough situations to learn how to overcome and be resilient. At a young age is the time to learn, when the stakes are low. Not when the child is older competing for an important title or championship.
- Sometimes kids need encouragement to help keep them on track; however there is a fine line between encouraging and pushing. This “line” can be easily crossed and parents need to be reminded of the basic do’s and don’ts to help keep their child happy, healthy and interested in sports.
- Make sure your child is playing a sport that they enjoy, building their own identity and not living through yours.
- Encourage your child to set their own goals to measure progress and be accountable for their own achievements. You may help define appropriate and realistic goals so they are not overwhelmed.
- Don’t criticize or yell, give simple feedback. Give only a few things to work on or improve at a time. Make sure it’s not a list, especially a list of things not to do. Children can only handle a little information at a time, especially if it’s negative.
Injury is another major concern. 48% of youth sport athletes have been found to have at least one injury during an athletic season. 65% of injuries in youth sports are minor. Males are slightly more prone to acute injuries such as knee and back pain; however females are more inclined to severe injuries such as ACL tears. Correcting muscle imbalances, improving weaknesses, functional limitations and movement; one can increase performance and reduce the risk of injury. Training two – three times a week for one hour can have a great impact on performance and injury prevention. The program must include these components: a warm up, flexibility, mobility, plyometrics focusing on change of direction, deceleration, and landing technique, strength training focusing on total body strength and also corrective exercises. The combination of these together can significantly reduce chance of injury. While also improving the way the body moves on the field or court, increasing force production and decreasing reaction time.
Just remember the reasons for your child participating in sport:
- To have fun
- To do something they are good at
- To stay in shape
- To learn new or improve skills
- To play as part of a team
When these reasons are no longer being conveyed then take a step back and think about your long term goals and reasons for participating.
By Kevin Devine
Athletic Development Coach, Sports Medicine Institute