By Terri Orbuch, PhD
When I was younger, I played competitive tennis in the fall on my high school tennis team, played on the badminton team in the winter, ran for track and field in the spring, and taught tennis in the summers to young children.
As a result of being an athlete, I learned coordination, leadership, team spirit, physical strength, and interpersonal skills. I learned how to cope with loss, frustration, and sheer exhaustion. I was taught to respect my coaches, support my team members, and challenge myself. In fact, sports taught me lessons and skills I would not have easily learned elsewhere. Besides, being an athlete was fun.
That’s why I was saddened to read that, according to the National Alliance for Sports, 20 million kids register each year for youth hockey, football, baseball, soccer, and other competitive sports, but about 70 percent of these kids quit playing these league sports by age 13 — and never play them again. The number one reason they quit, says Michael Pfahl, executive director of the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, “is that it stopped being fun.”
That’s a shame, because the benefits for kids of staying active are many. How can we as parents help our children have fun being athletic? Here are some guidelines.
Get to the root of the issue.
If your child announces that she’s quitting the team, gets anxious before practice, or decides not to try out, find out why. Is she getting harassed by older or better players? Does she routinely get benched or yelled at by the overzealous coach? Is she feeling pressure to perform — either from her teammates or possibly even from you? Some questions to ask: How do you feel about the other kids on the team? How’s the coach treating you? How do you feel about your skills and how you’re doing on the team? Is it fun? If not, why not?
Become more involved.
If you suspect bullying by peers or unfair treatment by the coach, consider attending some practices to see if you can observe the problem firsthand. Another strategy is to get involved with the team, by manning the snack bar, hosting a team party, or being a volunteer scorekeeper, team photographer, or equipment manager. Coaches and teammates appreciate involved parents, and it’s great for your child’s morale.
Keep an upbeat attitude.Your child’s participation in sports is strongly affected by your attitude, so be aware of your words and behavior toward the sport, the coach, the referee or ump, and his teammates. If you’re overly concerned with winning, it sends a negative message to your child. But when you have a positive attitude about his participation (even if he loses, sits on the bench, plays people who are way out of his league, or fails miserably), he’ll imitate your behavior. Don’t be the parent who yells at the coach or refs. And be proud of your child for giving it “his best,” even when he loses.
Find a “sport” your child loves.Not all kids perceive themselves as athletic or oriented toward “sports.” The key is to identify an activity that resonates for your child. For example, does you child love to sketch? Then maybe hiking and birdwatching with a portable easel is the ticket. Is your child noncompetitive? How about biking or skateboarding for him? Is your child theatrical? Sign her up for hip-hop dance studio. From pep squad and marching band to archery and rock climbing, there are so many “sports” for kids that you and your child should be able to come up with something your child loves that develops physical skills. As for competitive team sports, think creatively: ping-pong, badminton, ultimate Frisbee, and bowling are some examples. If it’s not offered at school, find a community organization that sponsors one of these teams.
Keep them engaged with support.Don’t forget that children who are happy in their chosen sport need support too. You can encourage them to stay on course by taking an interest. Just like anything else your child does, your involvement is key to their success in that activity. You don’t have to be the coach, but try to go to their games, practice with them at home, help them pick out the right equipment or clothes, and make sure they get to practices. Even though they may love to play, they want you to feel proud of them too.
Keeping your child connected to sports they enjoy and helping them become passionate about physical activities they love is a gift from you that keeps on giving. Just as kids who grow up eating healthfully eventually adopt these good habits later in life once they’re on their own, being physically active and having positive associations with sports during youth encourages children to remain physically active as adults.
Terri Orbuch PhD, known as The Love Doctor, has been a practicing marriage and relationship therapist for more than 20 years, and is a popular love advisor on radio, TV, Huffington Post, and peoplemedia.com, most recently seen on NBC’s Today. A research professor at the Institute for Social Research at University of Michigan, and a professor at Oakland University, she is author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great (Random House), as well as a forthcoming book on finding love again after divorce. Find out more at www.drterrithelovedoctor.com.