With the new school year starting, many children may also be getting ready to participate in sports. But some children may not be emotionally or physically prepared to play on a team.
“Sports activities at early ages have many potential benefits of physical activity, improving fundamental skills such as running, hopping, skipping and throwing,” says Paul Stricker, MD, a Scripps Clinic sports medicine physician and former U.S. Olympic team physician. “But there are also risks, such as putting too much emphasis and pressure at an early age to succeed and win.”
One of the greatest benefits of team sports is the development of concepts such as sharing and working together for a common purpose. These group efforts can help children develop leadership skills, discipline and accountability, but only if the child finds the sport enjoyable.
Before choosing a team for their child, parents should find out what their child is interested in and see if the activity, the team and the coach are a good fit.
“Check out the situation by observing the coach in action before deciding if it is a supportive, encouraging and fun scenario,” suggests Dr. Stricker. “Avoid a situation that could be filled with pressure and an overly competitive mindset that would be inappropriate for young children.”
Minimizing emotional pressure may help to prevent injuries by decreasing the bio chemical stressors that can negatively impact developing connective tissues.
Parents should keep in mind that sports skills have sequential developmental milestones that need to be respected. For example, motor skills including balance and running don’t fully develop until age 6 or 7. The ability to visually track moving objects doesn’t mature until age 8 or 9. Understanding this developmental roadmap can help parents avoid involving their children in activities for which the young body may not be readily equipped. If the child is only capable of basic skills then it is best to avoid any competitive situations to decrease any excess pressure.
Making sure children have a variety of activities is a way to find out what they enjoy the most, and it can help prevent overuse injuries.
For children, especially young children, the emphasis during sports should be on having fun. Dr. Stricker suggests that parents see what activities their child gravitates towards and not place expectations based on the sports the parents enjoy. Any consistent avoidance of or resistance to the activity is usually a signal that the child is not having a good experience.
“Emotional stress has no place in a youngster’s participation in sports,” says Dr. Stricker. “Find an environment where they are free to explore, but is also filled with constructive feedback to improve. This will help them feel a sense of accomplishment as their skills develop.”
The most important thing is to let kids have fun in their chosen sport. They need support that includes realistic expectations on their skills and abilities.