Youth sports offer a host of emotional and physical benefits, from helping kids stay active to building self-esteem and learning to work with others. But knowing which sport to play depends on your child’s personality, as well as the time and money you're willing to invest. Here are some factors to consider.
Determine readiness. Before age 7, many kids are still developing gross motor skills like running, kicking, jumping and catching. They're also still learning social skills like sharing, taking turns and losing/winning games gracefully. Experts recommend exploring different activities in the early years (versus organized sports), like kicking a ball around, playing at the playground and taking swim or gymnastics lessons.
Aim for fun. Many parents naturally gravitate toward introducing their kids to the sports they enjoyed as children. While this is a good place to start, your child may not share your enthusiasm in the long run. It may be necessary to try several sports before finding one that's the right fit for your child.
“We really need to look at what our kids do to have fun,” says Randy Goldstein, D.O., a pediatrician who specializes in youth sports medicine. “If they're having fun, they’ll stay in the sport longer. They won't burn out.”
Any sport kids play should help them develop strength, balance, coordination, and provide an opportunity to push themselves in a healthy, positive environment. “In a team sport, the kids have to work together towards a common goal and take instruction from a coach who isn't necessarily a parent,” Goldstein says. “This is important to learning how to be around future teachers, future bosses and future leaders.”
Meredith Dickinson says her son Tyler, 14, who plays football, baseball and basketball, thrives in a team atmosphere. He is motivated to improve by playing alongside talented teammates. “He works hard to be better. He may not be the best on the field, but he works hard to support his teammates,” Dickinson says.
Every child progresses at her own speed. Encourage young athletes toward personal goals with positive, calm support. And celebrate personal accomplishments along the way.
“Watch for individual progress, not what teammates are doing,” Goldstein says. “Your child may seem behind or ahead of the others. It takes one or two seasons to judge improvement and success.”
The downside? Team sports like baseball, basketball and soccer have become more year-round. Although this can help the team and individual players grow stronger and more skilled over time, families may find the sport is a bigger time and money commitment than they bargained for.
Much of the success in individual sports like tennis, dance, swimming and gymnastics depends on the motivation of the particular athlete. Athletes who excel at individual sports find satisfaction pushing themselves to achieve a personal goal rather than relying on the team to help them get there.
This is true for Dickinson’s daughter Lauren, 11, who swims. “Swimming is a good fit for her because it is her and the clock,” Dickinson says. “She doesn't want to have the win or loss depend on teammates.”
Playing an individual sport doesn't mean kids have to sacrifice team support. “Even individual sports have the camaraderie or the partnership of a team,” Goldstein says, who works with premier-level gymnasts. “They travel together and learn to become partners and accomplish individual goals, but as a team.”
The downside? Not all kids feel drawn to the spotlight. And kids may put undue pressure on themselves to reach personal goals, causing the negatives to outweigh the positives. Some parents find it difficult to watch their youngsters navigate the pressures of individual sports.
“As a parent, it's tough to watch your 9-year-old play in her first tennis tournament where she's responsible for scoring, pace of the game, calling shots and settling disputes,” says Jackie Kindred. “A great experience for her, but unnerving for a parent.”
Kindred's daughter, now 12, has since turned her attention to club volleyball, but she feels that both team and individual sports have benefited her daughter’s personal growth. “I'm glad she did both. It’s impossible for me to say one is better than another. It depends on the kids, the coaches and the sport,” Kindred says. “But I do think the exposure to both is crucial.”
Is Your Child Ready for Organized Sports?
Consult with a pediatrician before enrolling your child in a sport. And ask yourself questions like:
Is your child ready and able to...
- listen to other adults?
- play with others, wait in line and take turns?
- be away from mom and dad?
- understand how to play safely with sports equipment?
Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband are the parents of two active boys who have participated in both team and individual sports.