Getting your child active in sports benefits them well beyond giving their game consoles a rest. Along with fresh air and exercise, children gain valuable social skills. Such skills are lifelong trophies that they can carry with them well after a sports season has drawn to a close.
Dr. Richard So, a pediatric sports medicine specialist with the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Department of Community Pediatrics, recommends that parents expose their children to multiple sports at an early age. Early participation helps a child interact socially with others.
So notes that this interaction helps children become resilient and develop a personal grit in the face of challenges. Children also can develop leadership skills while learning the concept of teamwork. Still others may benefit for other reasons.
Rick Yohman, the president of the Green Baseball Softball Federation (GBSF), says that sports teach children some of life’s toughest lessons, such as how to deal with failure. “That’s a very important lesson because we face it all the time, be it in sports, in our education, in relationships, or in our careers,” he observes.
Sports also may bring out other traits in a child that they and their parents didn’t know they possessed, such as competitiveness and confidence, Yohman adds. “Hopefully, they get a good coach along the way that helps them bring that out and brings out that effort. They learn to try harder than they thought they could,” he says.
Lisa D’Alessandro’s son Brady has been playing sports since he was age 5, starting with t-ball and flag football. The 11-year-old currently plays football and baseball.
“We always told him he can try any sport he wants to but once he starts, he had to finish the season,” D’Alessandro says. “Quitting is never an option. He always had an interest in baseball and football. A lot of skills are used in both sports he plays, so it has helped him become a well-rounded player.”
She says starting sports at an early age taught Brady some important skills, such as hard work, dedication and discipline.
“This eventually carried over to his school work, too. He is a straight A student,” she says. “Playing sports now has helped him build his confidence on and off the field, work as a team and developed his leadership skills.”
Derrick Russell, head basketball coach for Beaumont School, an all-girls Catholic High School in Cleveland Heights, says girls often are not introduced to sports at an early age, which can stunt their sports development. He recommends that parents who are interested in having their daughters play should look for organized sports in their community.
“Once girls experience fundamental training and coaching, they can make huge leaps in what they are playing,” he says.
Family and Social Time
Other social benefits such as camaraderie among teammates aren’t necessarily limited to children. As the parent of a high-level volleyball player in travel sports, So uses out-of-state showcase tournaments as opportunities to develop new friendships with other parents and to strengthen family bonds.
“A lot of people knock playing travel sports, but the benefit I see as a parent is that my family travels together,” So says. “We eat every single meal together, whether it’s at a hotel or a restaurant, and I get to talk sports with my children.”
Russell notes that sports have become a year-round commitment for players — and families.
It’s important to find the right fit for your child. He recommends when looking for a team, parents should ask questions, contact other current parents and do their own research.
The right coaches matter for kids to help with skill development and serve as role models for the players.
“Brady has had some of the same coaches for the past three to four years and they always put the kids’ safety first,” D’Alessandro says. “Plus, he has learned a lot from them and they helped him become a better player over the years.”
You have to make sure there is a balance of school and sports.
She says, “When school starts in the fall, it always comes first. The coaches even instill that in the kids. Since practice isn’t until the evenings, homework is always done right after school so when he comes home at night, he can still get a good night’s rest.”
Yohman adds that school should come first, but during the summer months, families have more time to let their children try life’s sports sampler.
One Sport vs. Many
Today’s medical professionals are urging parents to avoid early overspecialization by their child in a single sport because of the potential for overuse injuries such as Little League and Tennis Elbow, according to So.
Participation in a variety of sports may provide complementary physical conditioning for children between the ages of 8 and 12. So notes that another potential drawback to overspecialization is that it may have other impacts beyond a child’s physical well-being.
“There’s way too much focus nowadays for kids on one sport,” Yohman says, “Let them pick what they want.”
Citing a statistic that less than 2 percent of kids will go on from high school to play college sports competitively, Yohman questions why a parent would want to force their kid to play one sport. “If he or she wants to play another sport because they like it, let them play,” he adds.
A potential drawback for families considering multiple sports for their children is there are seemingly more sports to play than hours in the day. Along with sports, children frequently have other interests and are involved in activities such as scouts, classes or social clubs.
If families have more than one child involved in sports, family schedules have to be adjusted accordingly. If one child is benefitting from playing a sport while another is lagging, parents may have to decide how much time to invest in either activity and to whose benefit.
Overzealous parents with their own agendas can negatively influence a child’s participation in sports. Parental agendas may range from someone wanting to fulfill their athletic dreams through their children to visions of their Division I athlete landing a full college scholarship. So warns that parents’ primary concern should be the development of their children.
As a high school baseball coach, Yohman has watched some kids get burned out when they’re forced to play a particular sport they’re not passionate about. He also has noticed that children who play various sports tend to become better athletes with age.
When choosing sports, So notes that families have to determine their balance and what works for them. “Not every child is meant for team sports, but there is a sport for every child — golf, swimming, etc.
Yohman credits the challenges of sports such as baseball and football with giving his 24-year-old son, Tyler, the strength of character to earn a civil engineering degree from the University of Akron. “He now works as a civil engineer and attributes a lot of that success to the fact that he learned to not give up through playing sports,” Yohman says.
Looking to the future, D’Alessandro says Brady will have the option to play one or multiple sports. “It will be his decision. Whatever he decides, though, he has to stick to it the entire season.”
Her advice to new sports parents is to let your kid have fun and don’t put too much pressure on them because they aren’t going to win every game.
“It’s okay to lose but be a good sport about it,” she says. “It may not seem like it now, but they really do appreciate all the time and money us parents spend for them to play a sport they love. I know Brady will thank me for it one day — after all, I’m his biggest fan.”
‘Burnout’ or Overtraining in Kids
Burnout, or overtraining syndrome, has been well described in the literature for adult athletes, but little is found regarding its applicability in youth. The overtraining syndrome can be defined as a “series of psychological, physiologic, and hormonal changes that result in decreased sports performance.”
The following guidelines are suggested to prevent overtraining/burnout:
1. Keep workouts interesting, with age-appropriate games and training, to keep practice fun.
2. Take time off from organized or structured sports participation one to two days per week to allow the body to rest or participate in other activities.
3. Permit longer scheduled breaks from training and competition every two to three months while focusing on other activities and cross-training to prevent loss of skill or level of conditioning.
4. Focus on wellness and teaching athletes to be in tune with their bodies for cues to slow down or alter their training methods.
— American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report from Joel S. Brenner, Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, “Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes.”