Like peas and carrots, PB & J, steak & A-1 sauce—children and sports go together for many families. There's a shared joy that is experienced when kids work hard to accomplish a goal, and parents share in that pride and cheer them on as they succeed! But choosing the right sport can be overwhelming, daunting even, for parents and caretakers. Don't sweat it (literally)...in this article, we’ll help you determine what is the best sport for your child.
Before we get into the nitty–gritty, it's important to understand WHY sports and physical fitness are such a crucial part of our children's growing–up years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children get at least 1 hour of physical activity every day. Most kids have a lot of energy and a natural urge to play—signing them up for sports is a great way to harness that energy and use it to their advantage!
We all know that sports are fun—we love cheering on our favorite team from the sideline, or watching the Olympics. So what are some of the other, life–long benefits of getting your kids involved in organized sports? (Hint: it's NOT to guarantee a full–ride to college on an athletic scholarship, although participation in sports is a great addition to a college application.) It's a fact that organized sports benefit kids in all 5 key developmental areas: physical, emotional, social, cognitive, and moral. How, you might ask?
C: CONFIDENCE & SELF-ESTEEM: Learning, and mastering, a new skill is a sure–fire way to boost your child's confidence and self–esteem. This applies beyond the sports field as kids feel confident to take on ANY challenge posed to them. Children flourish, on and off the field, when coaches and parents combine constructive criticism with encouragement.
O: ORGANIZATION & DISCIPLINE: Playing a sport requires that kids devote time to regular practice sessions, learn to follow rules and protocol, and also be mature enough to keep up with their sports gear and game schedules (as they get a bit older). This helps them learn the importance of following a routine.
M: MAKING & MEETING GOALS: Help your children set little AND big goals, give them the tools to meet those goals, and watch their faces light up as they find out they can do ANYTHING they set their mind to! Helping your kids achieve their goals (in sports, school, and life) is a rewarding and exciting learning process.
P: PRACTICE & WORK HARD TO IMPROVE & SUCCEED: Receiving a trophy for simply existing doesn't mean much—but working hard (by putting in those hours of practice and backyard play) to improve your sport, and seeing the success that follows, is a valuable life lesson for kids to learn at a young age. Remind them that winning isn't everything—but playing to the best of their abilities should make them feel successful.
E: ENJOY AN ACTIVE LIFESTYLE: Studies show that active regular involvement in physical activity can reduce the risk of health issues like obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis, and diabetes later in life. On a more immediate level, just moving around in active play builds up immunity and reduces the risk of common illnesses. It's also an effective, natural way to relieve stress. Active participation in sports will usually develop a life-long love of physical activity in our kids.
T: TEAMWORK & GOOD SPORTSMANSHIP: Playing on a sports team requires children learn how to cooperate with and respect different people, teaches them to encourage others and work together, and also requires humility when they make a mistake (parents, be sure you model this with your actions on the sideline)—a valuable life lesson for all of us. It teaches children to be humble winners and gracious losers. No one likes to lose, but studies show that kids who learn to cope with losing end up more resilient in the face of bigger challenges.
E: EXCELLENT ACADEMIC BENEFITS: Studies prove that kids that do well in sports often do well in academics as well. Playing a sport requires determination, dedication, and perseverance to achieve a target or goal—this is the same methodical approach applied to academics to achieve positive results.
WHEN SHOULD MY CHILD PICK A SPORT?
Some experts say that age 6 or 7 is the perfect time to pick a sport because at that time they are physically and emotionally mature enough to handle competition. But you can introduce the fun even earlier: "Take very young children to playgrounds and let them play, and...teach them easy forms of cardiovascular activities such as walking, swimming, or riding a bike. When this foundation is laid for a child, the chances of them wanting to take their fitness to the next level by joining a sports team is so much greater", says Michele Miller (founder of My First Workout in Tallahassee, FL).
THERE ARE SO MANY OPTIONS; HOW DO I PICK THE PERFECT SPORT FOR MY CHILD?
You may feel overwhelmed by the multiple sports opportunities out there, or perhaps you live in a small town with perceivably less opportunities, or you may be facing the reality of multiple children and the potential cost it would require to enroll them all in organized sports. These are legitimate concerns, but there is still ALWAYS an option for your family! Check with your community's parks & rec and church groups—often they have low–cost or free programs that introduce different sports to your child as they determine what they *really* love. In the meantime, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Expose them to a VARIETY of sports: A child's interest in that sport early on (whether by watching a game on TV, cheering a cousin's baseball game, or playing a pick–up game on the playground) is an early indicator of whether he or she will enjoy the game as a participant. Ask them: "What do you like about this sport?", "What seems boring or challenging?", "Do you think you'd enjoy playing this?" While your children should avoid participating in more than one sport per season at an early age, be sure to let them try out a different sport each season to see what really excites them! You can (and should) narrow those options down as your children grow older and their interests become more focused.
- Watch for signs of enthusiasm: Your children might constantly talk about the players or the last game they observed; or maybe they'll even analyze the strategies. You might hear them talking to their friends about it. These are signs that they may enjoy participating in that sport. If they're enthusiastic, that's a sign that they love that sport. If they are dragging their feet or don't seem engaged, there's a reason—perhaps the sport is beyond their abilities, or they may be spending TOO much time on it leading to burnout.
- Does your child prefer a TEAM or INDIVIDUAL sport? In team sports like football, basketball, or baseball, your child will play an active role on a team and share in its success (or failure). In individual sports like swimming, tennis, or gymnastics, your child's own skills matter most. Some kids work better on a team and find it to be less pressure than when they are competing one–on–one, while others are the opposite.
- Be ready to commit your own time: Just as you should with any of your child's interests and strengths, be prepared to set aside time to help them excel. One of the best things a parent can do with a child is spend time one–on–one with them—for sports, that means teaching fundamentals and learning skills. Play catch in the backyard; set up cones to dribble a soccer ball; instigate a game of HORSE on the basketball court; take your bikes for a ride in the neighborhood. This quality time helps them learn the basics of a sport in a non-threatening way. HearthSong has a variety of backyard toys geared towards young athletes who are exploring sports:
- What is your child's activity level? If you have a high–energy child who is always running around, consider a fast–paced sport like basketball or soccer. Or perhaps they are less interested in contact sports? Those children may enjoy and be challenged by individual sports like golf, tennis, or swimming.
- Check out the coaches: Passion for a sport can fizzle out with an ill–prepared, unmotivated, or pushy coach. You should look for the following things in a youth coach: encouragement, knowledge of the game, approachability, being passionate about the sport, and being dedicated to helping kids do their absolute best. With these things in mind, let's all remember that *most* youth coaches are parents—so temper these things with understanding and compassion.
OK, NOW WHAT?
What are the best sports for...
Kids under 5: Most parents of preschoolers will confirm that their kids have a limitless supply of energy. They love to run, jump, and play—but they're still refining skills such as hand–eye coordination and the ability to follow rules. Kids this age tend to benefit from activities that build developmental gross motor skills. Mastering a new skill that is age–appropriate will enhance confidence and encourage them to keep on going! Try the following:
- Swimming & Biking: The basic skills required in these sports can be taught at home by a parent, and are one of the most inexpensive forms of physical activity. These individual sports also help develop your child's ability on an individual level without competing with anyone. Swimming and biking help kids learn patience, discipline, and self–esteem; and improve muscle and cardiovascular strength, endurance, coordination of reflexes, and balance.
- Martial Arts: Dr. Natasha Trentacosta (pediatric and adult sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon) says: "Martial arts...fosters body control and awareness and improves movement quality…it encourages discipline, commitment, and control."
- Gymnastics: "Gymnastics...provides even young children with a sense of mastery and confidence in their bodies, and kids who are confident in their bodies also begin to become more confident in social skills, academics, and planning ahead," says Rebekah Springs, licensed marriage and family counselor.
- Soccer: This team sport facilitates teamwork, fairness, discipline, muscle strength, flexibility, coordination, and endurance. Need we say more?
Kids age 5-12: Kids' physical abilities, and individual interests, will continue to develop as they age. Their vision, attention span, and skills are improving, as well as their ability to follow directions. At this stage, sports provide a physical outlet, a model for healthy competition and teamwork, and a sense of mastery and identity. Let your school-aged children explore various activities while helping guide them towards sports that are suitable for their age, personality, and abilities. Here are some ideas:
- Basketball: This team sport helps kids learn the basics of offense and defense, while improving hand–eye and eye–foot coordination. Making quick passes improves their quick–thinking and reflexes, and running around the court builds overall muscle strength and develops agility.
- Baseball: Playing America’s favorite game improves your child’s gross motor skills and boosts their motor planning skills. It’s a fun way to keep your little ones happy, and it promotes healthy family interaction!
- Football: Whether you're starting with flag football, or have advanced to the pads and pushes of tackle, there are lessons to be learned playing youth football. Besides the obvious fitness benefits (running, jumping, learning to quickly change direction) that improve cardiovascular health and improve overall strength, youth football teaches kids accountability, leadership, and the importance of positive sportsmanship. Football is also a great way to build mental toughness and exercise discipline.
- Volleyball: This is an exciting sport that DOESN'T involve a direct clash with rivals. Playing this team sport that also requires individual responsibility helps kids learn about teamwork and socialization, while developing an all–body strength as it requires every muscle to work hard!
- Track & Field or Cross Country: There's practically no cost involved with this individual sport (though you will want to invest in a good pair of sturdy running shoes to avoid injury). Running long or short distances brings about focus, concentration, and endurance; and improves muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness.
- Tennis: This back–and–forth volleying game requires players to be nimble–footed and quick thinkers. Tennis encourages kids to strategize, learn proper technique, develop arm strength and accuracy, and build overall muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness.
- Golf: Playing golf strengthens the spine and core muscles, and can encourage children to try other sports as well. They learn valuable skills like hand-eye coordination, patience, and strategy.
- Horseback Riding: While this activity might not be for everyone, those children who CAN participate in horseback–riding classes or competitions will learn valuable physical and mental lessons, such as improving balance and gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, a boost of the cardiovascular system, and building confidence and cognitive abilities.
- Dance: Dancing is a great, and FUN, form of exercise for kids—building better coordination and flexibility, contributing to a healthy blood pressure and lung condition, and improving overall balance and muscle strength. A love of dance can motivate kids to stay active as they grow into adults.
Teens: Now competition is becoming more time–consuming, and let's face it—more expensive. It's important to have a serious talk about your child's personal commitment to the sport before signing the dotted line, and ensure that they have a foundation of proper technique and movement. If they're serious, let's try Ice Hockey, Lacrosse, Football, Baseball, Track or Cross Country, or Swimming.
Take me out to the ballgame, coach! Tag us with your youth sports photos @hearthsong.