Good Sports: Helping Young Athletes Keep Fun in the Game

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Good SportsAcross the country, bats are pinging, pucks are whizzing, and balls are bouncing in a happy din that can signal only one thing: a new season of youth sports. And if you haven't seen a field, rink, or court lately, they're crowded, as kids sign up for team sports in record numbers -- an estimated 35 million to 40 million a year at last tally. Overall, that's a great thing. Playing on a team offers all manner of health benefits: a regular cardio workout, the opportunity to build muscles, increased agility and speed. But while kids are signing on with great enthusiasm, they're also dropping out. In fact, by the time they hit age 13, statistics show, 70 percent of young athletes will have quit team sports -- because, they say, they're not having fun.

The good news is that there's plenty parents can do to help kids stay in the game. According to Joel Fish, Ph.D., author of 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent and director of Philadelphia's Center for Sport Psychology, parents are a determining factor in whether kids enjoy team sports. "If children sense that their parents love them and are proud of them whether they hit the ball or not," says Fish, "then they'll be better equipped to handle all the ups and downs that come with competitive sports." So read on for more tips on how to help your young athlete enjoy being part of a team.

Do Your Homework

Before you sign your child up for a sport, gather information about the program, the coach, and the team. Brooke de Lench, founder of the sports parenting site MomsTeam and author of "Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports," recommends taking full advantage of any preseason parents' meetings. There, she says, you can ask questions and "make sure the program is child-centered." Find out, for example, what the coach's policy on playing time is. Will players get to try a variety of positions over the course of the season? Are policies in place to deal with questions of sportsmanship -- both in the game and on the sidelines?

Get Involved

"A great way to have a positive influence on the program and the team is to volunteer as a coach or assistant coach," says Rick Wolff, chairman of the Center for Sports Parenting. If that's not practical, try to observe at least a few of your child's practices, or make a point of arriving 10 to 15 minutes before pick-up time. That way, says Cal Ripken Jr., Baseball Hall of Famer and coauthor of Parenting Young Athletes the Ripken Way, "you can get a sense of how your child is doing, and whether he's enjoying himself." (You'll also come away with a feeling for the coach's style and the rapport among players.)

Even if you don't officially help with the team, get out in the backyard and play. You don't need to offer advice (unless your child specifically asks you), just have fun together. "You'll be helping to develop skills in the process, and also making a wonderful connection with your child," says Richard Ginsburg, Ph.D., coauthor of "Whose Game Is It, Anyway? A Guide to Helping Your Child Get the Most From Sports, Organized by Age and Stage."

And because different sports offer different experiences, encourage your child to try a variety of team sports. "Specializing in a sport too early can lead to burnout and overuse injuries," says Ginsburg. But, he adds, be sure not to overschedule your child in any one season.

Be Smart on the Sidelines

"A parent's job is to be encouraging and positive," says Bob Bigelow, author of "Just Let the Kids Play." Negative or angry comments -- directed at a coach, an official, a player -- take the fun out of the game and can be very distracting for young athletes. Cheering is fine, but don't bother offering advice from the sidelines. "Children playing games of motion make two decisions a second," explains Bigelow. So it's unlikely that they'll even be able to process what you're saying in the heat of the game.

Put Winning in Perspective

"Between the ages of five and twelve, your top priority should be helping your child develop a passion for athletic activity," says Rick Wolff. That means emphasizing the fun of team sports over winning or losing. In fact, advises Richard Ginsburg, your kids will get a lot more out of the game if you "expand the definition of winning and reframe losing as an opportunity to learn." And keep in mind that the real goal of youth sports isn't scoring points, but growing an athlete. That's what coach and manager Cal Ripken Sr. did, and it produced not one but two Major League ballplayers. "My dad exposed me and my brother, Billy, to the game," says Cal Ripken Jr. "and then let us find our passion for it" -- a winning game plan for sports-loving families, in and out of the major leagues.

Sideline Smarts: A beginner's guide to helping young athletes keep the fun in the game

The best way to teach sportsmanship? Model it yourself at every game. Here's how:

  1. Support the entire team, not just your child, advises author Brooke de Lench. "Choose cheers that compliment the team as a whole," she says.
  2. Cheer for the other team too. You'll be sending the message that sports are about effort and fun, not just winning, says Shane Murphy, sports psychologist and author of "The Cheers and the Tears: A Healthy Alternative to the Dark Side of Youth Sports Today."
  3. Don't critique the players. "Negative remarks have a way of reverberating through the crowd and undermining the teamwork on the field," says de Lench.
  4. Thank the officials and coaches. "If you keep it up," suggests Murphy, "your example is sure to spread to other parents on your team."
  5. Talk to parents on the opposing team, Murphy says. "They're not the enemy."

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