How to Choose an Organized Sport for Your Children

If your child is ready for and interested in an organized, group sport, which is the best or most appropriate? Some children express an interest in a particular sport because their friends or classmates are becoming involved in it. Other children may need more outside encouragement to try a spe­cific sport or activity. Again, children should be encouraged but not pushed into trying a sport. It is not beneficial either to you or to your child if guilt over disappointing Mom or Dad beco­mes the motivating factor.

Many school districts and neighborhood groups begin peewee soccer and T-ball at the five-year-old level. Soccer promotes teamwork, builds endurance and body coordination, and provides aerobic conditioning. Soccer tends to attract more gregarious types who like group activities. It can also be good for less talented athletes because it allows children to participate in a team sport without being singled out for their performance.

Soccer is a good sport for both girls and boys, and in some areas, younger aged teams are mixed gender. Parents are often able to volunteer as coaches, which can provide a good oppor­tunity for time spent together. Whether parents participate as coaches or observers, they must maintain the fine balance between encouraging their child to participate and have fun and criticizing their child for not meeting parental expectations.

T-ball is a more competitive sport and generally attracts children who have good self-esteem and are comfortable with individual attention. T-ball is a modified version of baseball in which children hit a ball from a stationary tee rather than face a pitcher. It requires good eye-hand coordination, strength, and agility. Children who are not well coordinated or who feel uncomfortable in the spotlight may have difficulty with this sport. An important factor for all children, especially those who are less physically coordinated, is the team makeup. Grouping children by ability level is important in T-ball so that the less coordinated child does not feel that he is the only one who can't hit or catch the ball. Unfortunately, children even as young as age five can be very cruel in what they say to others. The last thing parents want for their children is to have them start to believe that they aren't as good as or can't keep up with their peers!

Gymnastics is an excellent fitness activity that promotes strength, flexibility, body control, and self-discipline. Although this is an individual sport similar to martial arts or swimming, gymnastics can be highly competitive and is best for children who are comfortable having their performance observed. Chil­dren, especially girls, who have concerns about body image or coordination may have difficulty with gymnastics. Here again, concern about grouping is essential. Children should not be placed in a group or class in which the majority of the children are on a different level. As in every activity role models are important, but too diverse an ability level can set children up for their own perceived "failure" in keeping up with what the other children are doing.

What about the child who has no interest in any type of sport or activity? How much should parents "push" to get a child involved? Modeling is the most important thing parents can do to encourage physical activity. Children learn at a very early age that physical activity is not important if they see Mom and Dad as sedentary people. If they see that physical activity is important to the whole family, however, they are more likely to incorporate physical activity as a part of the daily routine. Even if you are not physically active, a daily walk around the block or a family bike ride can provide some motivation for the child who is not interested in sports or physical activities. In addition to providing suggestions for different activities, it is sometimes helpful to find a friend who is already involved in a sport to provide encouragement. This can be one of the positive aspects of peer pressure!

A final word of caution to all well-meaning parents: This is a time of your child's life when you should be able to truly enjoy his or her experiences and exposure to new activities. Most five year olds are still fairly uncoordinated and have not yet learned how to function as part of an organized group. Allowing them to go onto a soccer field or baseball field and have a good time is the best gift you can give your child. Too often, parents become caught up in the competitive aspect of sports and expect their young children to perform at a level far above their developmental levels. Parents want their children to succeed in whatever they do, but sometimes that success means going out, having a good time, and developing a positive self-image without being the best player on the team!

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