When I was younger, I played competitive tennis. As a teen, I lived, dreamed, and thought about tennis all the time. When I wasn't playing on my high school tennis team, I was at the courts practicing with my father, who was my early coach. I taught tennis in the summers to young children at the neighborhood courts down the street from my house. My parents encouraged me to play tennis, but they also wanted me to play other team sports year-round at my high school. So I also played on the badminton team in the winter and ran for track and field in the spring.
As a result of being an athlete, I learned coordination, leadership, team spirit, physical strength, and interpersonal skills. I learned how to cope with loss, frustration, and sheer exhaustion. I was taught to respect my coaches, support my team members, and challenge myself.
In fact, sports taught me lessons and skills I would not have easily learned elsewhere. Besides, being an athlete was fun.
That's why I was saddened to read that, according to the National Alliance for Sports, 20 million kids register each year for youth hockey, football, baseball, soccer, and other competitive sports, but about 70 percent of these kids quit playing these league sports by age 13 -- and never play them again. The number one reason they quit, says Michael Pfahl, executive director of the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, "is that it stopped being fun."
Research finds that when children participate in sports, it helps them learn coordination, leadership skills, how to work in a group, cope with frustration, acquire physical strength, and develop communication skills. Studies even show that participation in organized sports delays the age of first sexual intercourse for girls. With information like this and the fact that I have two young adolescent children (aged 14 and 17), I began to wonder, how can we as parents help our children have fun being athletic? Here are some guidelines.
Play to your child's strengths.
Not all kids perceive themselves as athletic or oriented toward team sports. Help them see that being active is an important part of growing up. In every culture throughout human history, active play is what kids have been programmed to do! The key is to identify an activity that resonates for your child, and to have a nonrigid notion of the word sport. For example, does you child love to sketch? Then maybe hiking and birdwatching with a portable easel is the ticket. Is your child noncompetitive? He might consider biking or skateboarding. Is your child theatrical? Think about hip-hop dance studio. From cheerleading and marching band to archery and rock climbing, there are so many "sports" for kids that you and your child should be able to come up with something she loves that develops physical skills. As for competitive team sports, think outside the box: ping-pong, badminton, ultimate Frisbee, and bowling are some examples. If it's not offered at school, find a community organization that sponsors one of these teams.
Find out what's not fun, and why.
Competitive team sports can be incubators for negative feelings. Kids may get hassled by older or better players. They get routinely benched or chastised by overzealous coaches. They feel too much pressure to perform -- both from their teammates and even from parents, who may be overly invested in raising a future varsity athlete, just like they were. If your child suddenly wants to quit a team or becomes anxious when it's time to go to practice, these are signs that something's not right. Sit down with your child and ask him what's happening. How do you feel about the other kids on the team? How's the coach treating you? How do you feel about your skills and how you're doing on the team? Is it fun? If not, why not? Such questions can give you insights into your child's emotions and help you get to the root of the problem.
Just like anything else your child does, your involvement is key to their success in that activity. You don't have to be the coach, but try to go to their games, practice with them at home, help them pick out the right equipment or clothes, and make sure they get to practices. Other options to get more involved are manning the snack bar, or being a volunteer scorekeeper, team photographer, or equipment manager. If you suspect bullying by peers or unfair treatment by the coach, consider attending some practices to see if you can observe the problem firsthand. This way you can monitor what's going on to see if it requires some appropriate intervention on your part. Don't forget that children who are happy in their chosen sport need support too. You can encourage them to stay on course by getting involved and taking interest. Even though they may love to play, they want you to feel proud of them too.
Your child's participation in sports is strongly affected by your attitude and behavior toward the sport, the coach, and other kids on the team. Enjoying the sport should never take a back seat to winning! Kids observe and sense your feelings toward what they are doing. You want your child to love and enjoy playing their sport, so remember, it isn't whether they win or lose but about playing their best, growing, meeting new people, being a part of a team, and having fun. When you have a positive attitude about their participation (even if they lose, sit on the bench, play people who are way out of their league, or fail miserably), stay positive. Your view on their coaches, the referees, the other kids on the team, and the other kids they are playing will all be observed and imitated. Don't be the parent who yells at the coach or refs either. And be proud of your child for giving it "their best," even if they lose. The best phrase I have heard to respond to a loss: "I understand your frustration. Now, what can you do next time to improve?"
The key is to keep your child playing the sports they enjoy -- if not on school or youth teams, then informally with friends. Keeping your child connected to sports they enjoy and helping them become passionate about physical activities they love is a gift from you that keeps on giving. Just as kids who grow up eating healthfully eventually adopt these good habits later in life once they're on their own, being physically active and having positive associations with sports during youth encourages children to remain physically active as adults.