Whether or not a child is a star athlete, a foundation in sports as a youngster can help nurture a healthy, active adult life.
Parents play a vital role in a child's sports experience.
But parenting a young athlete is more art than science, and information about how to fulfill that role is largely missing in the world of youth athletic development, according to John O'Sullivan, a father of two and former executive director of the local chapter of Rush Soccer, a national soccer club.
O'Sullivan has written a book he's calling “Changing the Game: A Guide to Raising High Performing and Happy Athletes,” which will be published by Morgan James Publishing and available in early 2013. He also established the website sports-parenting.com.
Based on 20 years of coaching experience, research and conversations with parents of athletes, O'Sullivan shares tips for those who want to raise mentally and physically healthy athletes.
Q: Why does it matter if my child is involved in sports?
A: There's a national health and obesity crisis that stems from inactivity. Children need to build basic physical skills and confidence in their athletic ability to become lifelong athletes — hikers, surfers, cyclists, tennis players, whatever it is down the road that leads to overall better health. A bad sports experience at a young age can deter a child, and subsequently, (keep them) from believing that they can be athletic.
Also, within the youth sports environment, a child can learn values such as commitment, discipline, hard work and integrity, as opposed to pop culture values such as popularity, fame, self-centeredness and materialism.
Q: What if my child is just not athletic?
A: Physical literacy is learned, just like reading and math. Some kids are quicker to run, jump, balance, and they naturally take to sports. Others don't. But if your child didn't take easily to reading, you wouldn't say, “He's just not a reader,” and let it go. You'd take extra steps to teach them how to read.
Kids who aren't fast runners or good at scoring can still give a good effort, can still improve and learn and grow.
Find the right sport that they enjoy and can learn from.
Q: What should parents do if their child is reluctant or scared to try sports? If they're completely uninterested, how should parents handle that?
A: This is a question that hits close to home, as my son is one of those kids who really doesn't like to try anything until he knows he can do it. If I tried to force him to do something, he would refuse to participate. This happened with skiing, soccer, gymnastics, reading, you name it. The best thing to do is take him out to the yard and try playing the sport with him.
If it's soccer, roll him the ball and have him kick it. If its baseball, pitch him a big softball and hand him a big fat bat that gives him the best chance of hitting it. For my son, we put on his skis and I walked around the neighborhood pulling him behind me. When he smiled and said “again,” then we signed him up for ski school. You really need to know what kids want to do before signing them up for anything. The mistake many people make is signing a reluctant kid up when he has never expressed an interest in something, and when he doesn't want to play, just assuming your kid does not like sports, or that something is wrong with your kid. Instead, help your reluctant young athletes find their own passion, instead of finding it for them.
Q: How should I push my child?
A: First, recognize as a parent, you won't get it right all the time, and every child is different.
But here's the basics: Don't push your child to YOUR goals. Push your child to his or her goals. Have a goal-setting discussion, and hear what THEIR goals are. Accept their goals, and help the child reach them. If they tell you they want to practice one extra time a week to make it to the varsity team, it's OK to remind them of that goal and nudge them out to practice when they stall. As parents, it's our responsibility to push our kids when they need a push. That teaches them commitment and accountability, within their own goals.
For young kids, the main goal should always be just to have fun.
Q: You said many young athletes hate the ride home with their parents after a game that might have gone badly for the child. What should parents do during the post-game ride home?
A: Most importantly, tell them after every game, “I love watching you play!” Back that up with actions. In other words, don't say it while you're kicking the tire in frustration over a loss. Parents need to show unconditional love with words and actions so children don't feel their parents' love is tied to actions and outcomes in sports.
On the ride home, let them bring it up if they want to talk about the game. If they talk, really listen and be aware of their emotional state. This is not an appropriate time for a teachable moment. Don't criticize their actions, teammates, coaches. If they want to talk, keep it positive. If they're done talking, drop it.
The only exception is when they do something in a game that's unacceptable at home, such as punching an opponent, spitting or cursing. Deal with that.
Q: How do you tell parents to keep sports in perspective?
A: Recognize it's an educational process like math and reading. You wouldn't stand over your child's shoulder during math and yell, “Carry the one! Carry the one!” or groan, cringe and stomp your feet if they come up with the wrong answer to a math equation.
But parents act like that at games. Think of sports like school and react accordingly.
Q: What value is there in failure?
A: Science and research shows that failure is part of the learning process. We learn through trial and error. When you are learning to write your letters, you write an “A” badly a few times before it looks right. The things you're most proud of probably came through adversity. Sports is an opportunity for children to learn how to fail and to overcome failure in a safe environment without real-life consequences. It's an opportunity for them to learn that life is full of challenges.
Q: How do I give my child confidence?
A: Confidence can't be bought or given, it must be earned through the development of skills. A child on the free-throw line is going to be confident that they'll make the shot if they've practiced it, not because their parents tell them they're great.
Q: How should I praise my child?
A: Never praising a child is not good. Lavishing them in praise constantly isn't either. They're not dumb. Incessant praise creates a kid who doesn't value your input because they know it's not honest.
What you praise is also important. Praise things that are in the child's control — their effort, focus, commitment, and not the outcome.
Q: What is appropriate at various stages of development?
A: Ages 0-6: This is when bodies are sensitive to learning agility, balance and coordination. Parents should join kids in playground games, backyard activities like playing catch or kicking a soccer ball. Try lots of activities to build a base of agility, balance and coordination.
Ages 6-9: The emphasis should remain on fun, not on drills or competition. A variety of sports and activities should include unstructured games that make the kids laugh. Kids in this age range are sensitive to learning hand and foot speed and coordination.
Ages 8-11 girls and 9-12 boys: Kids in this range can develop sport-specific skills, such as dribbling or passing a soccer ball. Sometimes, kids in this age range become more involved in competition, which can take away from practice time and sport-specific development. In games, players get less ball time — catching and hitting the baseball, for example — than in practice. Practicing skills should consume three times as much time as games do.
The child in this age group should continue to round out their physical development by being involved with a variety of activities. That doesn't mean they have to sign up for a team or be coached or wear a uniform. Activities can include pick-up games in someone's driveway with friends or family.
Ages 11-15 girls and 12-16 boys: This is when kids are most sensitive to aerobic and strength development. It's normal for kids in this range to start to decide which sports they want to emphasize over others.
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