Sports are a great way to channel your child’s energy. They’re also a way to ensure that your kids make exercise a priority throughout life. Best of all — sports are fun!
But there can also be a negative side to sports. Growing children are at a higher risk for injuries to their bones, joints and tendons. Although kids have a natural desire to be active, they may try sports that are too demanding for their age. They also may feel pressure to succeed from parents, coaches and teammates which could discourage them from continuing a sport in which they may not excel.
Don’t let these things prevent your son from reaping the health benefits of athletics. Take these steps to ensure that his sporting experiences are positive.
CHOOSING A SPORT
The activity your child chooses depends largely on her preferences. However, you shouldn’t leave the decision entirely up to her. Encourage her to try different activities, positions and events. Specialization can wait until puberty.
Consider your child’s size, coordination and talents with others his age; if he is smaller, not as well coordinated, or hasn’t yet developed appropriate skills, team sports might not be appropriate yet. Individual activities, such as racket sports, swimming, gymnastics and some track events, might be better choices.
Some sports just aren’t safe for kids of any age. For example, boxing is unsafe because of the risk of brain injuries. Suggest similar, safer alternatives, such as tae kwon do, karate or jujutsu.
Talk with your daughter about how participation will affect her life and the family’s schedule. For your own peace of mind and the child’s safety, you may want to limit her participation to one sport at a time.
If your goal is lifetime fitness for your child, expose him to activities, such as cycling, swimming, tennis, running or golf, that will provide pleasure and physical benefits in adulthood, too. (And beware of sports where “making the cut” is more important than participation and competition.
Exercise is great, but too much can potentially affect growth and cause injuries that will alter your child’s overall development. Concentrated, demanding practices and training may be inappropriate for young children, who are prone to serious injury because their muscles and bones are immature. Most injuries come from overuse of muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons — and the damage can be long lasting.
Strength and endurance do not fully develop until the late teen years. Therefore, don’t expect too much too soon. If your child becomes frustrated over a lack of skill, remind him that different skills and abilities develop at different ages. The child whose athletic abilities “stand out” at age 12 might have more competition at 16, when others catch up to him.
Very young children (under age 8) have short attention spans and may not understand the objectives of organized activities. The emphasis should be simple body movements with short, fun practices and breaks for free play and the opportunity to play a variety of positions. The season shouldn’t last more than a few weeks, with very few scheduled games.
For ages 6 through 10, the emphasis should be on basic movements and skills — and having fun. More time and attention should be directed toward practice than competition so each child can develop skills.
Kids ages 11 to 14 need a chance to develop versatility, proper techniques and tolerance for increased training. Now the simpler skills can be combined — such as throwing while running — and more advanced and complicated skills can be introduced. Game strategy and specific plays can be practiced and carried out.
When basic fitness is maintained, older teens are ready for an increased training load, weight training and extensive competition. Their bodies are mature enough to train for collision sports such as football, wrestling or hockey.
At any age, however, the emphasis should always be on building skills, teamwork and having fun.
BE SURE YOUR CHILD IS READY PHYSICALLY
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a pre-participation health evaluation for any child involved in athletics to identify conditions that might interfere with safety. Each sports physical should include a maturity assessment that will tell when and for which sport your child is best suited.
Athletes must use protective equipment appropriate to their sport, such as well-made helmets, shin guards, chest protectors or properly fitted mouth guards. Children who wear glasses should have them secured with elastic straps, and choose models with safety lenses and frames.
Insist on appropriate facilities, a safe playing surface and immediate access to first aid and emergency medical care. When you attend practices or games, carry a cell phone in case it is needed.
Practices and games should be preceded by 10 to 15 minutes of gentle stretching and other warm-up exercises to help children concentrate and prepare their muscles for use. Breaks during practice or play are equally important.
Children should drink water or an electrolyte solution like Gatorade® at least every 20 minutes during practice and games, especially in hot weather. This is particularly important for overweight children, because their body temperatures rise higher than children of average weight and they can’t cool down as easily.
BUILDING SELF-ESTEEM THROUGH SPORTS
Make sure your child is participating in activities because he wants to — not because he thinks you expect it. Talk with him regularly about the pressures of losing, frequent practices and expectations from his coaches and teammates. If your child isn’t having fun and wants to quit an activity, let him. But, be sure he still participates in exercise or activities that provide pleasure and the opportunity for physical fitness.
Sports are a terrific way for kids to learn about fairness, sharing, courtesy, taking turns, competition, following rules, graceful winning and losing, and resolving conflicts. Don’t let the lesson of participation be “win at all costs” or “winning is the only thing that counts.”
Praise is crucial. Young children need to have their performances recognized and congratulated. Don’t focus on mistakes, correct harshly or compare your daughter to someone else on the team. Parents who pressure a child to perform beyond her capabilities not only run the risk of injuring the child physically — they also may damage her self-esteem.
The coach should remember that these are kids first, athletes second. Their physical limitations and their psychological growth should remain foremost in the coach’s mind at all times.
A good coach not only improves players’ skills, but also teaches by example. Coaches should make more positive, encouraging comments than negative ones. Mistakes and bad calls should be handled calmly and with good sportsmanship.
Coaches should allow for a wide range of developmental rates and abilities. They should resist the temptation to play the stars and let the less talented remain on the bench.
A thorough knowledge of the sport isn’t the only measure of a coach’s ability. Youth sports coaches often have little knowledge of the prevention, recognition and treatment of injuries. Educational workshops and clinics for coaches should be highly recommended, if not mandatory.
Parents, in a way, are coaches, too. While you may not be able to give your son pointers on improving technique, you can give lessons in sportsmanship. Don’t bad-mouth opponents or officials from the sidelines. Don’t berate your child or his teammates for poor performance. Remain supportive and show your pride in your child’s progress over the course of the season.
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