Written By: Aaron D. Sperbeck

Child’s play is not just all fun and games; rather the act of play is a crucial component in the growth and development of the adolescent brain, body, and intellect. Numerous studies conducted over the years consistently demonstrate how young people learn and prove that, especially in children, they acquire knowledge through play, experimentation, exploration, and discovery. Research shows that many of the fundamental tasks children must achieve, such as exploring, risk-taking, fine and gross motor development, and the absorption of vast amounts of basic knowledge can be most effectively learned through outdoor play activities.

In this regard, youth sports, both individual and team, offer a host of emotional and physical benefits that range from helping kids stay active, build self-esteem, and learn to work with others to accomplish a goal. More importantly, youth sports teach children that hard work and dedication can translate into achievements both on and off the field of play. As a parent, knowing which sport is best for your child often depends on your child’s personality, as well as the time and money you are willing to invest.

Here’s a tip … aim for fun! Many parents naturally gravitate toward introducing their child to a sport they enjoyed or experienced success at when they were children. While this is a good place to start, your child may not share your enthusiasm for baseball, soccer, or swimming. You may cycle through several sports and then back again, before you find one that is the right fit for your child and their unique personality.

Today’s parents face a challenge to find the right mix of fun, social interaction, and physical education within organized sports. Parents really need to look at what your kids do to have fun. If they are having fun, then chances are they will stay in the sport longer and will not burn out. They are also more likely to achieve goals that elevate them to their highest potential.

Within a team sport setting, children have to work together toward a common goal and take instruction from a coach who is not necessarily a parent. This skill is not only important but critical in a child’s social development toward peers and learning how to interact with future teachers, bosses and leaders.

Parents need to know and understand that boys and girls approach team sports differently and with vastly different metrics for gauging the success or failure of an experience.  In some instances, success in a team sport may mean being motivated to improve by playing alongside more talented teammates. In other instances, the social interaction of team play is rewarding in and of itself, regardless of the final score. Every child progresses at his or her own speed. Encourage your young athletes toward their personal goals with positive, calm support, and celebrate personal accomplishments along the way.

Not every child will compete in the Olympics someday, so watching for individual progress in your child may offer a better measure of performance than direct comparison to those 12-year olds who are naturally gifted. Your child may seem behind or ahead of others, but like Alaskan weather, this can change over the course of a season. It takes at least one or two seasons to really judge improvement and success rather than one or two competitions.

Certain categories of team sports — like hockey and soccer — have become more year-round in nature. Although this approach can help the team and individual players grow stronger and more skilled over time, families may find that the sport is more of a time and money commitment than they had bargained for. Make sure your child is ready and willing to fully commit to this opportunity, otherwise walking away from the team could be interpreted as a failure and thus counterproductive.

Much of the success that children experience during individual sports like tennis, dance, swimming, and gymnastics, depend on the motivation of the particular athlete. Athletes who excel at individual sports find satisfaction pushing themselves to achieve a personal goal rather than relying on the team to help them get there.

This is especially true for my daughter who swims. Swimming is a good fit for her because the race is always between her and the clock. She does not want to have the win or lose dependent on her teammates. While your child may prefer an individual sport, that does not mean they have to sacrifice the support of a team. Many individual sports have the camaraderie or partnership of a team as they travel together and learn to become partners and accomplish individual goals, all while supporting each other as a team.

The down side to individual sports is that not all children feel drawn to the spotlight during a performance or sporting event. Some children may put undue pressure on themselves to reach personal goals, causing the negatives to outweigh the positives if they do not achieve their self-set measure of success. Some parents also find it difficult watching their youngsters navigate the pressures of a sport on their own. As a parent, it is tough to watch your 9-year-old perform her first gymnastics floor routine where she is responsible for remembering how the individual skills all fit together to a choreographed song. This can be a terrifying experience for your child, and completely unnerving for a parent. It can also be an incredibly empowering experience for everyone involved.

As a parent, I am glad my daughters engaged in both team and individual type sports, including soccer, football, softball, volleyball, swimming, and gymnastics. It is impossible to say that one type is better than the other. I think it all depends on the kids, the coaches, and the sport. I do think that exposure to both types is crucial and ultimately leads children to discover what success means to them under their own terms.

IMPORTANCE OF PARENT SUPPORT

It is important to not view your child’s participation in sports as a “child-care” opportunity. It is not enough to just drop them off for practice or games, especially at younger ages. While it may be tempting to view sports as a temporary reprieve from parenting, both coaches and parents can help competitors deal with the aftermath of winning and losing. Valuable life lessons are taught and learned on the field of play and every parent should strive to be a part of that journey as often as possible.

Neither coaches nor other influential role models can serve as a substitute for parents. The presence of parents as onlookers and supporters of their child’s academic and athletic endeavors sends a clear message of love, pride, and affirmation to their child. In order to achieve genuine self-esteem, children must achieve goals they have set for themselves. They have a much better chance of doing so with active parental support.

Attend your child’s sporting events, and be their biggest fan! If you have the time and resources, be a coach, an organizer, a team Mom or Dad, or the parent willing to give your neighbors’ kids a ride to practice. Join the many dedicated parent and coach volunteers willing to participate to make our kids’ experience in sports as fun, healthy, and safe as possible.

See you at the swimming pool and ball park soon!

For additional information and reading:
The National Association for the Education of Young Children
Pellegrini, A. D., & Bohn-Gettler, C. M. (2013). The Benefits of Recess in Primary School
Forstadt, L.A., Graham, J. (2011). Children and brain development: what we know about how children learn. The University of Maine.
UMKC-School of Education’s Edgar L. and Rheta A. Berkley, newsletter (2015)
Goldstein, Jeffrey, (2012), Play in Children’s Development Health and Well-Being
Early Headstart National Resource Center, 2013, Supporting Outdoor Play and Exploration for Infant and Toddler.
Gabbard,C. and Rodrigues, L. Windows of Opportunity for Early Brain and Motor Development. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 69(8),54-56
Tandon, P., Zhou, C., Christakis, D. (2012). Jama Pediatrics: Frequency of Parent-Supervised Outdoor Play of US Preschool-Aged Children. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012;166(8):707-712.