From the Coach's Corner: Perfect Gift...Putting the "Kid" Back In Youth Sports Dec 2, 2014

By Tom Curry

Much has been talked and written about the right age to begin youth sports and the direction parents need to take when dealing with youth sports in general. As a high school athletic director, I see many examples of kids specializing in a particular sport, or quitting when they reach high school age because of a variety of reasons. As I look back on my own childhood, we "played" every day. Almost all the kids in the neighborhood joined in, whether it was baseball, basketball, touch or tackle football, tag and yes...even hide and seek. No one bothered us. We made up teams, argued about things, patched things up quickly and moved through our younger years playing and having fun. It was "kid directed." We played because we wanted to have fun and be with our friends.

Why Your Child Plays Sports

When children are surveyed about why they participate in sports, some reasons given are: "I want to have fun," "I want to be with my friends," "I want to try something and see if I like it." Notice that winning is not part of the discussion. College scholarships are not there either. The truth is that those things are the last things on a kid's mind. While one- to two- percent of high school athletes earn college athletic scholarships, the fact is that there may be a better chance to go to medical school than there is of playing college and pro sports. The simple facts are that youth sports should create an environment of fun, physical activity and sportsmanship that a child may draw a wealth of positive experiences from. The other aspect that is vital in child development is learning to lose. All adults know that you don't "win 'em all." However, the ability to get up off your feet when knocked down, or in other words "resiliency," may be the single best lesson that youth sports teaches. Victory is temporary while learning to fight through adversity lasts a lifetime.

In an age where seven- and eight-year-old "travel teams" are chosen and play full schedules, often crossing over into other sports seasons, it is important to listen to our own children and watch for clues that are given off by the child warning us of the need to back off. Is there "downtime" for a kid to just be a kid? Do we need this kind of pressure for our children? Is it healthy?

A Parent's Ego and Child Development

Are you cultivating a child for a sports career that he or she may not want or be ready for? I often tell parents a good gauge for involvement is to ask yourself, "Am I this much involved in their English or math class?" Probably not. Yet, a parent will aggressively yell at youth coaches, referees and even kids to get their point across about some part of a game or practice. Recently, there were brawls at youth football games with parents from both teams leaving the field under arrest. I wonder if those same parents would be so incensed at their child missing a match problem in class.

Children develop different skills at different age levels. Sometimes, adults are simply asking too much from children whose motor skills may not be ready to tackle the physical skill necessary to participate in a particular sport. Motor skills are continually developed as children grow. My son teaches elementary physical education and tells me all the time about the wide differences in skill development from grade to grade. The ability to track a ball in flight and figure out where to be to catch the ball is a learned skill. Some children can do it at a young age, while for some children it takes a bit longer. In addition, while some increase in aerobic capacity may be possible to achieve, the child may have to physically mature to allow any increase above a minimum to occur. It is simply not possible.

In addition to the physical skills, the mental developmental process takes on a huge role during these years. Some sports require rapid decision-making skills, while other sports may involve more complex instructions. In school we talk about "age appropriate" activities and lessons. Teaching a seven year old 25 football plays may just not be possible at that young age. Predicting future athletic success at an early age is a shaky prediction at best. A child of eight may be a totally different child at the age of 15. Maturity and puberty may have changed that child completely. The child who was awkward in fifth grade may be smooth and quite coordinated as a high school sophomore.

The Case for More Sports

For those of you that read this column on a regular basis, you know that I am a true advocate for children playing more than one sport. I have seen too many kids burn out in one sport because they started at an early age and were so over-involved that it took over their life and the lives of their families. Each sport contributes something to a child's overall mental, physical and emotional development. Children need to hear a different voice, experience different teammates, understand both victory and defeat and discover other talents. Each sport also brings a new set of skills to the child's skill set. Soccer helps develop good foot skills, while basketball involves hand/eye coordination and agility. Softball and baseball develop tracking, throwing and batting skills. Participation in all sports produces a more well-rounded child who certainly is exposed to more teammates, more friendships and more positive experiences than someone who plays just one sport.

Real Wisdom...When to say "No"

Parents hold the cards. Real change will only come when parents decide that the true best things in athletics that are attainable are those values that enhance our culture. Winning is great, but the true values that last are improved self-confidence, resiliency, establishing positive friendships and understanding that it is important to be competitive to have any chance to succeed in life. Parents understanding when it is okay to say "Enough," or "No," or "We are going to skip a season," and the ability to recognize that other things are important too is the gift of real wisdom. In this holiday season it is the best gift we can give each other and our children.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

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