Given that the days of unsupervised pickup games are largely a relic of the past, it is not surprising that an estimated 45 million children and adolescents participate in organized sports in the United States. While there are abundant options from which to choose at the recreation level, many parents will eventually decide to allow their children to take part in more competitive, travel-oriented sports culture.
I have been part of the youth sports culture for years now, as a parent, coach, professor, and sports psychology consultant. While I have witnessed the many benefits associated with organized athletics beyond the rewards inherent in the participation in vigorous exercise, many participants—at all stages and performance levels—seem to enjoy the intensity, travel, camaraderie, and challenge that competitive travel-sports provides. At the same time, I am also concerned that all of the lifelong benefits of sports participation will be lost because the growing $15.3 billion youth sports market is pushing children out of sports far too soon.
Research suggests that 35 percent of young athletes quit participating in organized sports in any given year, and by age 13, 70 percent of them have completely dropped out! It appears that the "professionalization" of youth sports—that appears to be driven more by profit than by the development of athletes and lifelong participants in athletics—has taken the fun out of the experience. If you are going to set your child up for a positive experience within this highly competitive sports culture, it is essential that you mindfully approach this process to avoid falling victim to the emotion and myths that surround it.
Here are five strategies to help you maintain a balanced approach to your child’s participation:
1. Foster a healthy ego.
Don’t allow regrets or expectations based on your athletic past affect your child’s current or future opportunities. Be mindful of falling into the "reverse dependency trap," in which a parent overidentifies with their child’s sports experience and measures their personal self-worth through her or his child’s success on the field. When making decisions for your child’s level of sports participation, take your ego and social pressures out of the equation and let the primary goals of healthy long-term athletic and personal development guide your thinking process. A less ego-invested approach leads to your child taking ownership of their participation, which is a precursor for mastery, in sports and in life.
2. Avoid benchmarking.
Avoid comparing your child’s athletic skills and level of performance with other children. While benchmarking is not a wise parenting strategy in general, it is particularly toxic in athletics. This approach can lead to lowered self-esteem, self-worth, self-efficacy, and confidence. While competition can be a driving force toward actualizing one’s athletic potential, direct your child to become competitive with her previous accomplishments, not another teammate's. All children have an individual developmental clock. Allow your child’s unique developmental time frame to evolve naturally and focus on your child’s specific strengths and talents.
3. Focus on the long-term.
Do not fall victim to the notion of short-term success over long-term athletic development. Instead, adopt a growth mindset toward sports parenting so your child models a similar perspective toward sports participation, education, and life in general. This means that you should reward effort, taking chances, and making mistakes. Emphasize process and performance over winning so that sports does not become an "outcome-focused enterprise." The only path to long-term success in sports is to allow kids the freedom to learn to love playing the game on their own terms.
4. Be a positive sports role model.
Show interest in your child’s activities by being relaxed and calm on the sidelines. This will provide a positive behavioral model when positioned next to overly emotional and inappropriately behaved parents. In most cases, the children cannot hear your cheers and directions from the sideline, and if they do, it will only negatively affect their attentional focus. If you cannot resist the urge to engage, maintain a growth mindset perspective; that is, reward effort, not outcome.
5. Diversification over specialization.
Postpone early specialization as long as possible—and continue to encourage sports sampling throughout development. Purposeful sports sampling will enable children to find their passion, which leads to intrinsic motivation. Continue to encourage free play to develop general physical literacy skills and fundamental movement patterns so your young athlete can build a neuromuscular system that is competitive. To force a child to play a single sport before age 12, without developing essential motor patterns and general physical literacy is not only shortsighted but also dangerous. Repeat this mantra: diversification over specialization.
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