Another close friend of ours, and one of our founders, is Jim Lobdell. Jim sent us the following, and we certainly do THANK YOU for it, Jim! You present some very useful thoughts.
I love sports. Throughout my childhood, I played pick-up games of virtually every ball sport, and then swam and played water polo in high school. In college, I played on two NCAA championship water polo teams, and into adulthood and middle age I’ve competed in basketball tournaments, triathlons, running events, and open water swims.
I know playing sports offers kids an undeniable wealth of benefits, from fitness and fun to life lessons about teamwork, perseverance, and effort. But navigating youth sports today is tricky. With youth sports organizations now offering leagues for 4- and 5-year-olds, travel teams for 9-year-olds, and options for year-round involvement, some families find sports to be “too much of a good thing” and struggle to find a balance as they encounter the “earlier is better” and “more is better” mindset.
Here are five guiding questions that parents can ask to help determine choices about youth sports for their children. Often, families have to reconcile conflicting priorities as they answer these questions (for example, a great sports opportunity may impinge on other family needs, or the needs of the parents are at odds with the desires of the child), which is why dilemmas around youth sports are so prevalent. That said, answering these five questions when faced with these dilemmas helps sort out the issues when making decisions.
1. What are our goals for our child in sports? Here’s a partial list of reasons you might want your child to play sports. Check the ones that matter most to you, and keep these in mind as you make choices about your kids’ sport experience and when you are on the sidelines at games. Most parents don’t rate “winning” as a primary goal, yet their sideline behavior often suggests otherwise.
• Become an accomplished athlete
• Develop teamwork skills
• Earn a college scholarship
• Fitting in
• Gain increased self-confidence
• Have fun
• Improve fitness
• Learn “life lessons” that sports can provide
• Make friends
• Playing a high school varsity sport
2. What do youth sports experts recommend?
• Keep the focus on fun. That’s the primary reason kids play sports, and when it becomes too serious too soon, they typically leave the sport or burn-out.
• Encourage kids to “just play” more. While organized sports offer great benefits, kids develop athletically and learn a ton from playing kid-sized pick-up games and age-appropriate games like tag.
• Avoid early specialization. Better to play a variety of sports to develop a variety of athletic skills and to avoid burn-out and overuse injuries.
• Allow kids to rest and their bodies to recover. Overuse injuries are increasing at alarming rates, largely due to early specialization and year-round playing.
3. How will the sports experience fit in with our family needs? Youth sports require a time commitment—after school, evenings, and/or weekends—that can impinge on family time. Parents must consider:
• How will joining the sports team/club impact the family’s overall schedule?
• How important is having family dinners together? Unstructured family time in evenings and on weekends? Flexibility for family vacations during summer and over school holidays?
• Does driving to/from practices and games and watching youth sports “count” as family time?
• How will the sports team/club impact siblings?
4. Does the sports team/club align with our values? Parents cede oversight of their child to the coach of the team. Especially as kids get involved in more time-intensive sports at later ages, parents need to “screen” the sports team or club. In doing so, parents must determine:
• Do the values of the coach and the sports team/club align with ours?
• Do we feel comfortable entrusting our child with this coach?
• Does the time and financial commitment the team/club requires feel reasonable given our family needs and resources?
• Does our initial experience and observation match what we were told when we were selecting the team/club?
• Who is benefiting most from the commitment required by the club: the athlete, coach, or club?
5. How is our child responding to the sports experience? This question needs to be revisited regularly as a child is involved in the sport. Especially as kids get older and involved in more intensive sports, it is incumbent upon parents to “check in” with kids. This is done for the child’s well-being and to make sure the child’s desires—and not the parents’ needs—are driving the experience. Parents can monitor this by asking:
• Is our child asking to join the team?
• Is our child getting his/her gear ready and bugging us not to be late for practice? (Keep in mind the Disneyland comparison—no parent has to drag a child there.)
• Is our child voluntarily “bending our ear” about their experiences?
• Is our child fired up when they talk about the sport?
• What does our child’s body language reveal when you mention the coach’s name?
• When left to their own devices on their own time, does our child play the sport?
• Is the sport helping or hindering their sleep, eating, and/or study habits?
• Is our child asking to ratchet up the commitment and seriousness?