Sports are a big part of Mike Wilber’s life. He’s been a youth sports coach for more than 30 years, and today he coaches high school track, football, and swimming in Olean, NY. He’s also the father of four athletic kids.
He says he decided early on to get his kids involved in sports.
“Young children who are involved in sports have a healthier lifestyle integrated into their lives at an earlier age,” Wilber says.
And experts agree that sports can be good for kids, “not only for the obvious health benefits that 60 minutes of daily exercise gives you, but in social ways as well,” says Jennifer Shu, MD, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Lessons in working with your teammates, sharing, and the importance of making and keeping commitments are valuable skills on and off the field or court.
But many kids aren’t born knowing that they want to play soccer or be on a cheerleading squad. So parents have to help them find an interest and figure out the sport that fits them the best -- without pushing them into an activity they dread. How can you find the balance? Here’s what to keep in mind.
Is my child ready for sports?
Around age 6 or 7, most kids have the physical and mental skills they need to start joining in organized sports. Shu says you can get your child moving as early as they show interest, and start with easier activities that won’t be hard to master -- playing catch, kicking a ball, swinging a bat, or going for an easy swim. As they get better with hand-eye coordination and physical activity, then you can introduce the idea of a team sport.
“You may want to try less-competitive team sports at first -- for example, recreational level rather than travel ball -- so novices don't get intimidated by more seasoned players,” says Shu, an Atlanta-area pediatrician.
It’s also a good idea to think about the physical traits that a sport requires before you sign them up for one. Are they tall enough? Strong enough? Talk to the coach to find out what you should look for.
What are they good at? What do they like?
The next step is to think about their strengths and their temperament. Can they handle multiple practices a week? Do they have a competitive drive? Are they a team player, or do they like doing things on their own?
No matter their personality, there are many options.
“Encourage your child to try a few different sports so they can get an idea of what they are good at and what they are interested in,” Shu says.
If they don’t have the best hand-eye coordination, they might want to try dance or martial arts instead of softball or tennis. If they’re not crazy about competition or keeping score, individual efforts like running, swimming, or tennis may be a better fit than soccer or lacrosse.
And don’t just depend on your own ideas. Ask your child what they like and how they think they are doing in an activity. “Children are eventually going to be drawn to the sports that they feel that they are ‘good’ at,” Wilber says.
Know when to stop.
But what if your child simply refuses to keep playing?
Wilber says it’s important to know whether your child hates being active, doesn’t like that sport in particular, or if there are other social problems on the team, like bullying, that may be causing the issue.
If you’ve considered all of those things, you have to decide if it’s best to convince them to keep going or to let them move on to something else.
“There is a fine line between supporting them in a sport and forcing them to do something that they are not enjoying,” Wilber says.
The most important thing is to help your child find a way to be active that they like and wants to stick with. That will make them more likely to choose to be active, even into adulthood.
If the traditional team sports don’t interest your child, there are other options.
“Team sports can be very structured, which may not appeal to some children,” Wilber says. “Try the local YMCA. They provide many activities, such as swimming, gymnastics, golf lessons, and tennis, which may be more appealing.”
And don’t be surprised if your child wants to switch sports a few times at the beginning. It may take some time for them to find the right fit.
“Pick two or three sports and give your child a chance to experience them for at least a season or two before giving up,” Shu says.
But, she warns, do be careful.
“You may get stuck with a lot of expensive equipment that may never get used again.”
The bottom line, says Wilber:
“I don't think that every child should have to play a sport, but I do feel that they should all have a lot of opportunities to try sports.”