Debbie Gross, LCSW, Ltd. - Individual, Marital & Family Therapy

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One Therapist's Reflections

Getting a Healthy Perspective on Kids and Sports

From September 24, 2009

Now that school has begun and Labor Day has passed, parents are full swing into fall sports with their children. This is a great time to put sports into proper perspective. For the sake of this blog, I am writing about kids and team sports. I am also categorizing the different levels of sports involvement for children in the following manner: new learner, casual player and competitive level.

New Learner: Many children begin their team sport involvement around age 4 or 5 when community park district leagues are introduced to this age group. Assume all children devote 100% of their growing energy to the different areas of child development: fine motor, gross motor, verbal and social-emotional. Children who appear very athletic at age 5 look different on the sports field than the child who is an avid reader at this age. Likewise, a very social child might not be a very fast runner. Each child has uniquely spent their 100% of growing energy, and at this age, skills vary greatly. Where a child is at age five is also not always a predictor of athletic success, as development takes different turns as each child continues on his or her unique growth path.

So sports at this age should be focused on skill building, friendship making, and teamwork. A good coach will not put his best players in for more minutes, or identify MVP based on athletic agility. Coaching at this age should work to teach children understanding of the game, sharing successes, learning from mistakes, demonstrating good sportsmanship and respect of the referees, umpires, coaches, parents, and other children playing the game. A parent’s focus should be the same. Don’t go over the shot the child missed, or talk about the child who stood watching the planes fly overhead. Talk about how much fun you had watching your child play, how well he or she worked as a team, and what fun it was seeing the two teams high five at the end. Do not let a child quit mid-season, unless there is something very negative influencing the decision. A child who is not the best on the team is not a good reason. Each child on a team is an important rung on a ladder to a successful season, and getting to the top of that ladder of success is measured by fun, camaraderie, and learning. Teach your child the value of not quitting.

In addition, children with special needs should be especially considered at this time. Many children have not yet been diagnosed, but parents have begun to notice quirks or unique traits. As these children enter team sports, they may have difficulties attending, socializing, or understanding the complexity of the rules. Patience and acceptance by their coaches, teammates, and other parents helps a child who might participate a little differently into feeling like a valued member of the team.

Casual player: Casual players are kids who enjoy being on a team, playing the game, having fun with fellow teammates, and learning the rules. They’re not focused on who wins or loses most of the time. They are out there to participate. Some casual players might even be forced to participate by parents who want their child to experience team sports, but they themselves aren’t that ‘into’ it. Parents need to remain encouraging, positive, and keep the perspective of the goal of involvement – continued development, teamwork, sportsmanship, and respect. Yelling across the field at your child or someone else’s to hustle or screaming at a ‘bad call’ by an umpire negates the positive learning atmosphere. Sitting in your car after the game, dissecting all the poor performance areas of your child doesn’t motivate him to run out there next week and play hard. Let the coach do the coaching around the game, and coaches – be encouraging, even to your own child. If you’re the coach, do you call each player and analyze the game with each child? I doubt it. Instead, talk about the positive moments of the TEAM. Spend time practicing at home to enjoy this quality time with your child while helping develop skills in a fun, casual way.

Competitive level: Some children do have skills that excel, many times in more than one sport. These children should be able to begin competing with other children at a similar ability and interest level. However, the same message applies – to keep a child invested in her development of sports skills, encouragement and support are the ticket. Yelling at missed efforts, criticizing your child, coaches, refs, or others does not help maintain interest, passion, or effort. If you continue to negatively reinforce his or her performance, at some point, whether now or shortly in the future, your child will burn out, tired of the negative impact of your pressure. Remember to allow the child to explore other interests as well. The child who spends 4 hours a day, 6 days a week practicing for one sport might one day come to you because friends are all on a volleyball team and that child wants to join them. You have to help the child weigh passion and skill with well-rounded development and desires. It’s not easy to make the decisions, but talking it out, helping the child understand the implications of each choice, and allowing him or her to ultimately make that decision, for good or bad, is an important learning moment. We all have regrets of ‘what could have been’ and your child may have them too. But we learn a lot from these moments.

The most important message here is to teach your child to love sports – playing, watching, coaching – the whole package. I have spent many years coaching children in softball, and my best memories are the ones where the kids bonded as a group. We started out each season with a pizza party to help the kids get to know each other. We had three to four lunches, dinners, or get-togethers during the season. Parents were encouraged to help coaches at practice, allowing them to spend time around us as we demonstrated learning in a fun atmosphere. Early in the season, each practice started out with name games and we taught softball terms in fun, teambuilding ways. We did not win every game. I can’t even tell you our records, or the records of any individual players. I do remember the moment the child who was so timid to swing a bat got her first hit. I do remember the cheers of support from her teammates when a child with special needs made her first put out at second base. I even remember calling a time out so the girl in right field with her mitt between her legs could finish putting her hair in a better ponytail before the next pitch. I also know that some of my players went on to play competitively in high school, and some went on to play at the intramural level. And some just throw around the ball during the summer, hopefully smiling as they remember our fun season. My hope is that all kids that participate in team sports can feel good about being a part of a team - win or lose, total athlete or ponytail fixer.


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