By: Anthony Rao, Ph.D.
We want to select sports that are the best fit. Kids should be challenged, experience success, make a few new friends, and most importantly, have fun. The options seem straightforward. Typically, there’s football, soccer, hockey, basketball, and baseball. Yet parents are finding it more complicated to choose. Organized team-sports have become expensive, highly competitive, and pressure filled, even at very young ages.
Start Simple and Lower the Pressure
We’re so worried that our kids won’t make the team that we lose sight of what makes a great team experience. Simply put, it should be groups of kids who get healthy exercise, play by basic rules, and have fun. Start with what’s easiest for your child to do. Of the aforementioned teams, soccer is the easiest to play. It's mostly lower body movements and there aren’t hard rules to master. If your child expresses an interest in more technically difficult sports, like baseball and hockey, you can explore those too. The key is to not take sports too seriously when kids are young and getting down the basics. Make the whole experience informal. Find groups of parents and leagues willing to share equipment and keep the competition low. This is the best way to help a youngster feel safe and invested in trying new things. If your youngster isn’t ready to play, don’t push. Give them time and introduce sports down the road.
Parents often ask me, Shouldn’t we encourage kids to join teams early on? Won’t they lose out on making friends if we don’t get them into organized town leagues now? Organized sports are a relatively new thing for kids. Throughout history, children have organized themselves into small groups to play and to compete in physical activities. Kids naturally gravitate to peers and engage in activities that teach them about fairness and how social rules work. Truth be told, they really don’t need us to keep them highly organized or be on the sidelines handing out trophies every time they score a point. Our job is to provide resources and offer encouragement so they can discover what sports best suit their body type, physical abilities, and personality. Don’t worry if they bounce from one sport to the next, as long as they honor their commitment to their team for the season.
What’s the Goal of Sports?
Certainly, playing hard to win (and learning how to accept loss) are important goals. More important, though, is maintaining health. We need to get kids off the couch and away from electronics in order for them to stay healthy. Without regular physical outlets, boys in particular are more prone to tantrum, be moody, remain unfocused, and act more aggressively. We tend to look to team sports as the best solution. This may be a mistake for many kids. By late middle school, team sports become very competitive and only a small number of children have the skills to participate on these more select teams. We need to look to other types of sports so that all children can have opportunities to participate and enjoy athletics.
Consider Individual Sports
Swimming, biking, running, skateboarding, skiing, snowboarding, and hiking are just a few examples of wonderful sport activities that don’t depend on organized teams. They allow a child to challenge themselves at their own pace and level. For more competitive older kids, there are sports like wrestling, gymnastics, tennis, and track and field. These types of sports do offer teams at the high school level, but still allow kids to practice and work more at their own pace.
For kids who are aggressive or kids who want to be more assertive, martial arts programs are terrific. They teach the importance of having respect for authority figures, build confidence through mastering routines, and help kids feel empowered. There are also boxing programs designed for children that teach self-defense, coordination, and offer great stress release via challenging work-outs. Look for boxing programs that don’t focus on fighting, but focus on conditioning and mastery of technique.
Individual sports also encourage us to stay in shape throughout our life span. As adults, we can run, bike, go to the gym, take a brisk long walk, or swim most any time or anywhere we happen to be. Unlike team sports, they aren’t dependent on assembling a group of players.
Everyone’s Got Talent!
If your child stumbles through team sports and shies away from competition on the field, think outside the box. I’ve known seemingly clumsy kids, who’ve become masterful athletes when introduced to sports like squash, racquetball, rock climbing, and diving to name but a few. One college student told me he loves ultimate Frisbee because “it’s competitive, but not highly pressured. We play hard, but we’re also into helping the guys who aren’t as good to become better players.”
Consider dance. In many ways, it’s the original sport. Every culture, throughout history, has used this natural human talent to move and express itself. Get some music on and encourage a performance. Young kids naturally move and dance when they hear a beat. They can dance while playing pretend instruments. Older kids can learn intricate steps and songs. Get a few lessons lined up or get your child involved in a theatre or dance group.
The possibilities for athletics are numerous. Think of the Olympics, and you’ll be reminded of the many options available to help kids stay healthy. The important thing is to get your kids moving. There are many benefits from regular exercise, and some that are surprising. It's not only healthy for our bodies, but for our brains. Researchers are reporting improved mood and more positive outlook for those of us who stay active. Join in with your kids and you’ll feel great too!
Dr. Anthony Rao holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Vanderbilt University and trained as a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. For more than 20 years, Dr. Rao worked in the Department of Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital and served as instructor at Harvard Medical School, where he trained psychologists and physicians in the use of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, or CBT.
He is the founder of Behavioral Solutions in Lexington, Massachusetts, a private practice known throughout the Boston area for using CBT to help children without relying solely on medications. Dr. Rao consults with families all over the country and has lectured at numerous colleges. He regularly presents at conferences and parenting groups, and conducts workshops for professionals who work with children.
Dr. Rao has been the featured expert on documentaries for the A&E series Investigative Reports and MTV’s True Life series. Dr. Rao has been interviewed for articles in the New Yorker (“The Doubting Disease,” by Jerome Groopman, April 10, 2000) and Parents Magazine, and has written articles on childhood issues for the Boston Herald. His editorial letters and opinions have appeared in the Boston Globe, Newsweek, Scientific American, and New York Magazine.
His book, The Way of Boys: Promoting the Social and Emotional Development of Young Boys, is about the crisis in American boyhood. It's published by William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, and was released on August 25, 2009.