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Making a Game Plan With Your Athletic Child

Determing The Right Age For Organized Sports

John and Beth Nugent of Benzonia, Mich. were hardly surprised when their children, Ben and Emily, expressed interest in sports.

"Both children walked early and had good large muscle skills," says Beth Nugent. Emily, their oldest, started playing organized basketball when she was 8 years old. Ben started baseball when he was 3. "The best thing we could do to encourage our children's natural abilities was to just play with them," says Nugent.

Dr. Walter Meeker, a pediatrician in Traverse City, Mich., affirms the Nugents' philosophy on the importance of playing with children. "Kids play is kids play. When you emphasize performance instead of play, it is not beneficial," Dr. Meeker says. "Parents shouldn't think in terms of raising and creating a great athlete. Parenting is radically more complex than that." Nugent agrees that raising children who are responsible, loving and caring is more important than pushing a child to succeed in sports. In the Nugents' case, the children simply have a love for sports and thoroughly enjoy playing them.

So when does playtime evolve into a more structured setting? Dr. Meeker says that by the age of 10, most children are ready for the defined structure and rules that organized sports demand. At this young age more emphasis should be placed on the benefits of physical activity and team cooperation. "Although weight training is safe to start between the ages of 10 and 12, performance enhancement doesn't belong in younger age children," Dr. Meeker says.

"Out of the Box" Sports

When children become old enough to participate in a more organized games, parents can explore the opportunities their communities offer. Elementary schools often add sports activity information to flyers and school newsletters. Talk with other parents who have children involved in the sports your child is interested in. If athletic opportunities are few in your school, check out The Amateur Athletic Union at www.aausports.org. This is a non-profit volunteer sports organization.

Local and regional contacts can be accessed at the Web site to find athletic opportunities in your area. The AAU even sponsors a Junior Olympics every year. Sports programs offered run the gamut from traditional baseball and basketball to taekwondo and surfing. Events for physically challenged children are offered as well.

Sports camps, day camps or sport clinics can be a fun way to promote better playing skills. Talk to your school's athletic director. Their desks become inundated with programs and they will be able to make recommendations. Or, try a more high-tech option like www.websportscoach.com. This is a search engine for sports camps in the United States. Other search engines will allow you to look at global options. Check out www.kidscamps.com for a worldwide search. Each site is searchable by sport, including options for children with disabilities. Start gathering information now to narrow down the choices so you can make a well-informed decision before summer break. Remember to take your child's cue. Explore the options together before signing your children up for an event.

Look for Local Heroes

"Make positive experiences available to your kids," says Peter Moss, an elementary school principal and junior high football coach in Interlochen, Mich. Moss prefers to take his own children to local sporting events at the high school level and nearby college games because professional sports have become a lot about money and fame. "Being a spectator at a local high school or college game tends to promote a sense of community and team spirit," Moss says.

Moss has witnessed both sides of the game: as a principal, coach and father of an athlete. "My experience is that kids who play sports have expectations put on them to keep their grades up to be eligible to play," Moss says. "Kids will try harder if they want to play."

He also believes parental involvement is key. "Don't overdo it and play the game through the child," Moss warns. Winning is not the end result; promoting teamwork and self-improvement should be the goal. "Support the coach and if you have a difference of opinion, talk to the coach in private, not in front of the child. One of the worst things you can do is to interfere and teach your child differently than what the coach has taught them. The child will be mixed up at the game and not have any fun."

Psychological Stats

Although many previous studies have indicated that children who are involved in sports maintain a better grade point average, stay out of trouble and generally have higher self-esteem, that isn't always the case. A recent study conducted by Assistant Professor Matthew Taylor of the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse found that in some cases, sports are being linked to drug abuse and aggression in older youths. However, the study's author cautions that other variables – like school setting, coaching styles and parental involvement – also played a role.

Final Score

Let your child take the lead and follow them. Sports should always be an enjoyable and positive experience. Your child will be watching your attitude. If you are having fun and not taking the game too seriously, your child will take that cue from you. Praise your children and give them positive encouragement when they make mistakes. Stay calm and remember: It's just a game. The real victory is the desirable characteristics that will develop and benefit other areas of your children's lives as they grow and mature into adulthood.

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