Organized sports are becoming more and more a part of American childhood, with an estimated 35 to 40 million children ages 6 to 18 taking part in team sports and other recreational activities. All over the country, kids are donning uniforms and heading to fields, rinks, courts and pools — with parents in tow.
Overall, this is good news. With the rise in childhood obesity, the need for exercise is even greater. Organized sports offer a chance to learn teamwork and sportsmanship, meet new friends and connect with other families in the community. Here's how to make sure organized sports really are a good thing for children both physically and emotionally.
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Every activity carries risk and sports are no exception, but most sports injuries are preventable. Here are some injury-prevention tips adapted from the American Academy of Pediatrics to keep kids out of the doctor's office.
- Use the appropriate protective gear (helmets, shin guards, mouthpieces) — and use it correctly.
- Do exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles. Not only will they make your child less prone to injury, but they will make them better at the sport.
- Follow the rules. Using proper technique and playing safe are crucial.
- Take breaks. Kids should have a chance to rest during practices and games.
- If something hurts, stop playing. Continuing may lead to a worse injury.
- Watch out for heat injury. Children should drink lots of fluids (water is generally fine) before, during, and after exercise, and dress in light clothing. If the weather is particularly hot and humid, stopping practices and games may make the most sense.
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Emotional Health Matters, Too
We've all seen those parents yelling at their child from the sidelines, or read in the news about parents assaulting coaches and officials. We tell ourselves that we'd never be like that. But it's all too easy to start comparing your child to others, or pushing a child just a little too hard.
Parents usually do it for the best of reasons: They want their child to succeed. But if your child is unhappy, success isn't going to mean much. Sometimes parents push their children in the hope that they might get a college athletic scholarship, or even become a professional athlete. While some kids are indeed very talented and having a dream is great, the statistics are sobering: Only about 1% to 2% of high school athletes get Division I or II scholarships. Even fewer make it to the professional level. Are those odds worth stressing your child out — or endangering your relationship with him? Probably not.
Here are some general guidelines:
- Be supportive and positive. Every child is different and makes progress at his or her own rate. There is always something you can praise ("That was a great pass in the third quarter!" "You did a great dive." "I could tell you were trying really hard." ) Be positive about other players, as well.
- Stress effort and fun, not performance or winning. After practice or a competition, your first question should be: "Did you have fun?" If the answer is frequently "No," it's probably time to rethink your child's participation in the sport or the team.
- Don't criticize the coach or officials in front of your child. If you are unhappy with something, talk to the person directly. Be respectful and fair. Most are volunteers and are doing their best.
- Don't be your child's coach. It's fine to throw the ball around, shoot baskets in the driveway or otherwise play and practice with your child. But that's as far as it should go. You are the parent, not the coach, and it should stay that way. One exception: If you have the time and energy to volunteer as a coach in your community (and are willing to invest equally in all the players), then go for it!
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The Serious Athlete
Early "specialization" in a particular sport is becoming more common as well. Parents should be wary of this. Research shows that young athletes who participate in various sports have fewer injuries and play longer than those who specialize before puberty.
If, however, your child has truly fallen in love with a sport, here are some suggestions from the American Academy of Pediatrics to help prevent overuse injuries — which account for 50% of sports-related injuries — and burnout:
- Make sure your child takes 1 to 2 days off from practice each week.
- Have your child take a 2 to 3-month break from the sport each year to rest (and regain perspective). She doesn't have to sit around; it can be a good opportunity for some cross-training.
- Limit your child to one team each season (either of the same sport or different ones). If there is some compelling reason to be on two teams — your child is chosen for a select team — then the practice time for each should be adjusted.
- Be alert for signs of burnout, such as nonspecific aches and pains, fatigue, falling grades.
- Make sure your child's doctor knows about his sports participation, so he or she can work with you to prevent problems. A visit with a nutritionist may also be a good idea.
With the right perspective, and the love and common sense that are crucial in all aspects of parenting, organized sports can teach wonderful lifelong habits — and build wonderful lifelong memories.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.