My child is starting to participate in organized sports. How can I help him?

Parents are usually pleased when their child begins an organized sport. Not only is there the excitement of games, meets, and exhibitions, but there’s the knowledge that sports provide many benefits. Kids who participate can learn valuable lessons about skills, perseverance, self-discipline, meeting challenges, responsibility, sportsmanship, teamwork, winning and losing, and doing their best.

A child chooses a sport based on his interests and his desire to participate with friends. Parents usually help make the selection, occasionally vetoing a sport. One father wanted his son to play pee-wee football and excitedly took him to the first practice. However, the other kids were much larger than the boy, and the father quickly changed his mind.

As parents help their child pick a sport, they should keep his abilities, interests, maturity, and age in mind. Some six- and seven-year-olds are not ready for organized sports. Parents should consider practical issues. A sport requiring a great deal of practice may not leave enough time for homework, play, and relaxation. Above all, parents should help him pick a sport he’ll enjoy and feel good about, since a successful experience with organized sports can enhance his self-image. As his skills improve and he learns to get along with teammates and coaches, he’ll feel proud of his abilities. This, in turn, will reinforce his desire to keep playing and getting better.

Of course, some children are more serious about sports than others. While one child may view baseball as just activity, another child may be intensely interested. He might practice on his own, have his gear ready, and keep careful track of his game schedule.

A vital part of a successful sports experience for any child is parental involvement. Kids like their parents to come to games and exhibitions. When parents offer support—cheering the team on, watching occasional practices, practicing with their child, talking about games—a child is likely to maintain a high level of interest.

Another important aspect of organized sports is a child’s relationship with his coach. Coaches are generally friendly, inspiring, and fair. An effective one will bring out the best in his players or students while setting a tone of good sportsmanship and respect. Some coaches may mean well but lack the interpersonal or athletic skills to do a good job. Then there are coaches so focused on winning that they bully their players and offer a poor role model. Parents should discuss any concerns with a coach, offering suggestions if necessary: “I have a sensitive child who’s afraid you’ll yell at her if she misses the ball.” “Would you let my child compete in the backstroke? He’d really like to give it a try.”

Kids playing organized sports can face considerable pressure, not just from aggressive coaches. Some parents are overpowering, forcing their child to play a particular sport or speaking critically of his abilities. At many games, they can be heard shouting harsh comments from the sidelines: “Next time kick the ball harder!” “What’s wrong with you? You shouldn’t have missed that.”

Of course, it can be difficult for parents to watch their child compete. If he doesn’t do well, they may feel embarrassed: “Why can’t he play better?” “I wish she’d remember her moves.” They may feel unhappy if he seems nervous, distracted, or tired. It’s common for young children to forget the rules, yell, miss the ball, throw things in frustration, and cry.

Before criticizing, parents should consider the frustrations their child may feel. He has to abide by rules that sometimes seem arbitrary or unfair, and he has to get along with children who are more or less skilled than he. He may be disappointed if he’s not a starter or doesn’t play the whole game, and at times he has to accept losing. A child involved in sports needs parental support and guidelines.

At some point, if your child is particularly good at a sport, he may be encouraged to compete at a more advanced level. Various sports have select or tournament teams or classes for children with outstanding athletic ability. Such groups offer new challenges and a chance to demonstrate and improve skills in a highly competitive atmosphere. While you and he may be very pleased with his acceptance into an elite group, you may be unsure about pursuing the opportunity.

Ask yourself these questions: Does he want to participate? Can he accept the pressure he’s likely to feel from coaches and teammates? Can he handle the competition? Does he have time for added practice? Are you able to do the necessary driving? pay the additional fees? give the time required?

If he does join a select team, you may see a difference in his attitude. His emphasis may shift from having fun with a sport to perfecting his skills, getting better, and winning. Select coaches are often inflexible about their standards and demands, and your child may have some trouble adjusting at first. He may complain about his coach: “Just because I didn’t do a perfect handstand, he made me start over.” “I missed a couple of shots in practice and now I can’t do the corner kicks in the game.” Stay in touch with the coach so you can evaluate and discuss your child’s concerns.

Whether your child is involved with a highly competitive team or a regular one, at some point he may want to quit. Don’t let him make an impulsive decision—many children never go back to a sport once they’ve quit. Talk to him about the pressures and his feelings. If he’s upset over one incident, speak with his coach and try to resolve the situation.

In most cases, have your child finish out the season, especially if his teammates are counting on him. However, if pressures of his sport seem to have a consistently negative effect on his family life or schoolwork, allow him to stop a team sport mid-season or mid-class. Even then, present his quitting as taking a break from sports rather than ending his involvement altogether. Your child might welcome the suggestion that next season; you and he can look for another team so he can try again.

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