By: Christa Melnyk Hines
Youth sports offer a host of emotional and physical benefits, from helping kids stay active to building self-esteem and learning to work with others. But knowing which sport is best for your child often depends on your youngster’s personality, as well as the time and money you’re willing to invest in a particular activity.
Determine readiness. Before the age of six or seven, many kids are still developing gross motor skills like running, kicking, jumping and catching. They’re also still learning social skills like sharing, taking turns and losing/winning games gracefully. Rather than organized sports in the early years, experts recommend exploring different activities, like kicking a ball around, playing at the playground and taking swim or gymnastic lessons.
Aim for fun. Many parents naturally gravitate toward introducing their kids to the sports they enjoyed as children. While this is a good place to start, your child may not end up sharing your enthusiasm. And you may go through several sports before you find one that’s the right fit for your child.
“We really need to look at what our kids do to have fun. If they’re having fun, they’ll stay in the sport longer. They won’t burn out,” says Randy Goldstein, a board-certified pediatrician who specializes in youth sports medicine. “If they’re having fun, they’re more likely to make goals that are to their highest potential.”
Pros of team sports. Any sport your child participates in should help them develop strength, balance and coordination, and provide them with an opportunity to push themselves in a healthy, positive environment.
“In a team sport, the kids have to work together towards a common goal and take instruction from a coach who isn’t necessarily a parent,” Goldstein says. “This is important to learning how to be around future teachers, future bosses and future leaders.”
Meredith Dickinson says her son Tyler, 14, who plays football, baseball, and basketball, thrives in a team atmosphere. He is motivated to improve by playing alongside more talented teammates.
“He works hard to be better. He may not be the best on the field, but he works hard to support his teammates,” Dickinson says.
Every child progresses at his or her own speed. Encourage your young athlete toward his personal goals with positive, calm support. And celebrate his personal accomplishments along the way.
“Watch for individual progress, not what your child’s teammates are doing. Your child may seem behind or ahead of the others. This can change like the weather,” Goldstein says. “It takes one or two seasons to judge improvement and success-not one or two competitions.”
The downside? Much like individual sports, team sports like baseball and soccer have become more year-round in nature. Although this approach can help the team and individual players grow stronger and more skilled over time, families may find that the sport is more of a time and money commitment than they’d bargained for.
Pros of individual sports. Much of the success in individual sports like tennis, dance, swimming, and gymnastics depends on the motivation of the particular athlete. Athletes who excel at individual sports find satisfaction pushing themselves to achieve a personal goal rather than relying on the team to help them get there.
Dickinson says this is true for her daughter Lauren, 11, who swims.
“Swimming is a good fit for her because it is her and the clock,” Dickinson says. “She doesn’t want to have the win or loss depend on teammates.”
While your child might prefer an individual sport, that doesn’t mean she has to sacrifice the support of a team.
“Even individual sports have the camaraderie or the partnership of a team,” Goldstein says, who works with premier-level gymnasts. “They travel together and learn to become partners and accomplish individual goals, but as a team.”
The downside? Not all kids feel drawn to the spotlight during a performance or sporting event. And some kids may put undue pressure on themselves to reach personal goals, causing the negatives to outweigh the positives. Some parents also find it difficult watching their youngsters navigate the pressures of a sport on their own.
“As a parent, it’s tough to watch your nine-year-old play in her first tennis tournament where she’s responsible for scoring, the pace of the game, calling shots and settling disputes,” says Jackie Kindred. “A great experience for her, but unnerving for a parent.”
Kindred’s daughter Rose, now 12, has since turned her attention to club volleyball, but she feels that both team and individual sports have benefited her daughter’s personal growth.
“As a parent, I’m glad she did both. It’s impossible for me to say one is better than another. It depends on the kids, the coaches and the sport,” Kindred says. “But I do think the exposure to both is crucial.”
(Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband are the parents of two active boys, who have participated in both team and individual sports. She is the author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World).