Sports and Exercise in Childhood
We live in an era of great competition in many areas of life, especially sports. Many kids these days are pushed into athletic activities in pursuit of compiling that perfect “resume” for college entrance applications. There is the big time of high school sports where private coaches, performance psychologists, and year-round club teams are more normal than not. And there are many kids pep talking themselves to glean approval from Mom and Dad. Many of these kids are being pushed too hard which could lead to true movement aversion. We are seeing more emphasis placed on specialization from an earlier age which is dividing kids into two camps- the all-in athletes who devote significant out of the classroom time to their sport and the activity averse, who miss out on the true pleasure of normal movement of their bodies.
According to Mary Uran, cofounder of Girls on the Run Twin Cities, the Minnesota Chapter of the national athletics-based life-skills program for girls, you’re either on track to do one sport year-round or you’re on the sidelines by third grade. Athletic participation for kids ages 6 through 12 has dropped by 8 percent in the last decade. Yet another study found that “not having fun” was the number one reason boys and girls alike quit a team sport.
Youth sports is now a $15 billion industry due largely to the allure of college scholarships and the dream of playing professionally. We are at the crossroads in parenting to find that sweet spot for the active-but-not-superstar kid where the need not be sport obsessed or sports averse.
Some parents today spend as much as $50,000 per year on coaching and training for their kids. These kids become enrolled in the life of predawn practices, staying after school for extra coaching and spending weekends in elite facilities. Some kids are truly gifted athletes and might thrive in this regimen; but others may perceive this as an overly pressurized situation that could easily turn into a life of imbalance, stomach aches, and reduced motivation.
Managing expectations is all important to preventing undue stress. Despite skilled training, only a fraction of talented kids ever make it to the Olympic team or play in the pros. Less than 1 percent of high school athletes receive athletic scholarships, and only 0.03-0.05 percent continue their trek to the professional level, according to the NCAA. Some need to resketch their dreams or accept that high school might be the end of the line for that sport and utilize learned skills to carry on through life without being disappointed in themselves.
Avoiding specialization will help your child to avoid injury in the long run due to overuse, overtraining, and burnout according to a 2016 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. It is estimated that 50% of athletic injuries in ages 18 and younger are due to overtraining. In 2017, a study was published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine, that found that among 1,500 boys and girls, those with athletic specialization were 50% more likely to be injured.
When mixing things up athletically, the pressure is lessened to be the best at one thing. In addition, experts concur that playing multiple sports is good for the mind and body. This also builds more general fitness in the body for overall longevity. And, many pros even come from a multi-sport background. As adults, cross training and deliberate recovery are critical. This applies to our kids as well. Mix in some fun activity for your child as well, such as rollerblading or biking.
Winners vs. Losers seem to be the only two options in sports which is a mindset. For the borderline obsessive athletic kids, this can become addictive. According to Uran, mastery vs. victory mindset is essential for intrinsic motivation. This inspiration is derived from the activity itself vs. beating someone. It is healthiest to have your main competition against yourself.
Parents can focus on personal victories as a broader view of success. Love of the game vs. love of the conquest is more motivating to the child in the long term. How does your child comment after a game? Is it about winning? Is it about being happy about their individual performance? Mastery mindset focuses on things like leadership, hustle, and improvement.
Mentoring or big brother and big sister roles can help to foster learning for advanced students. This is an excellent ego check of the better athletes to look outside themselves. This is essential in life as well as on a sports team. We should all work together to help each other.
The competitiveness of today’s youth sports can discourage the middle-of-the-pack kids who used to make up the backbone of most school or little league teams. Kids of average ability can grow up to become activity averse which will keep them out of the gym, the yoga studio, or the biking trail later in life. The increasing presence of screen activities are associated with a higher obesity risk. According to an Active Living research report, children who watch 3 or more hours of TV per day are 65 percent more likely to become obese. So here is some guidance:
Become active yourself. This could be the most powerful step to ensure your child enjoys activity and stays active for life. Non competitive sports are perfect for kids under 10. Walk the dog. Play catch with a ball. Keep it positive, not competitive.
Change your definition of activity. Not all children are suited for organized sports. Explore hobbies to get moving like yoga, walking, running, hiking, or cycling. These can be part of clubs without being competitive. There are many dance options as well. There is ultimate frisbee too. So try asking instead of pushing so they participate in an activity that makes them happy.
We encourage active play because this is mentally healthy as well. In a coaching situation kids get the notion that the strong survive and the weak get weeded out. In nature there is a place for everyone. Encourage tag, hide-and-seek, climbing trees, and running. Generations ago, we all played in this way.
Choosing how we talk to our children reveals our sincerity in how we as parents feel about their role in sports. It is helpful to praise the little things that foster growth on and off the field. Supporting an upset or injured teammate or coming to practice with a smile are such examples of filling a kid’s “emotional tank.” This carries forward to off the field moments.
As parents we need to ask questions, foster emotional and physical growth as well, and be positive examples of using our bodies in healthy ways. As individuals, we take these early life lessons into a life of healthy longevity or we watch from the sidelines. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.