Sporting events occur so often throughout the year that it is usually easy to find at least one athlete, player or team to support. Families can come together to follow an athlete or team’s performance and children can quickly pick up the rules of a game without any pressure to perform.
As children get older, the time usually comes to move them from spectator to participant and sign them up for an organized sport, whether at school or in a local club. With good support and the right sport for their age and skills, they can reap many benefits.
How organized sports can help your child
Children who take part in organized sports receive many social, mental and psychological benefits over and above those that come from general physical activity.
Starting a child in an organized sport gives them a healthy habit of physical activity to see them right through to adulthood and help them ward off many age- and weight-related ailments. Even before adulthood, teens who take part in sports are less likely to smoke, do drugs or abuse alcohol.
Learning the rules and techniques of a new sport and training for a particular purpose can give a child self-discipline that they can employ both on and off the field. Sports often help children learn that working hard helps them to achieve a goal.
Social skills and teamwork
When many people think of organized sports, team sports often spring to mind. Sports such as baseball, hockey or basketball can teach children to trust and rely on others to achieve common goals, value everyone's individual strengths and put collective needs before individual wants.
Improved mental health
Taking part in a sport can greatly improve a child's sense of self-worth. Whether it is the satisfaction of mastering a dribble or beating a personal best, sports-related exercise enables children to gain confidence in their skills. In an era of excessive focus on appearance, sports also provide an outlet for children, especially girls, to focus not on what their bodies look like but on what they can do. This has the knock-on benefit of improved body image.
Taking part in anything competitive requires an ability to handle disappointments and accept personal responsibility for any mistakes. It can take a while for children - and some adults - to learn not to blame others when things go wrong. However, organized sports can teach important lessons about the value of taking part rather than winning and about using setbacks as learning opportunities.
When to start a child in sports
Experts agree that it is very important not to start a child in sports too soon. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, “Enrolling children in sports that are beyond their developmental ability can lead to frustration and early dropout.”
Growing children need time to develop “sport readiness” to take part in many activities. Sport readiness means that a child’s motor skills (hand-eye co-ordination and general mobility) and cognitive skills match the requirements of a sport.
Because of this, it is best to choose age-appropriate activities to make sport safe and enjoyable rather than a source of potential injury and stress. The following age and activity guidelines are useful.
Ages two to five
At this age, a child's legs usually become straighter and their stride length increases. They also develop a more mature running pattern, but their balance and their attention spans remain limited.
It is best to let a child practise movements through free play rather than any type of organized sport. Activities such as tumbling, throwing, running, kicking, catching a light ball or pedalling with training wheels are all useful.
Ages six to nine
At this age, a child has developed better posture and balance and is beginning to learn transitional skills, for example the ability to do two or more basic movements together (such as throwing and running). They usually understand a little about teamwork and can better follow directions, although their attention spans remain quite short.
If your child is ready, you can consider entry-level softball, soccer, gymnastics, martial arts, swimming, tennis or running. Any activity should have flexible rules, short instruction times and minimal focus on competition. Also remember to buy properly-fitting protective equipment if the sport requires it.
Ages 10 to 12
Children at this age have usually mastered the fine motor skills needed for some sports and are improving their transitional skills. They have longer attention spans and are usually ready to learn more about the strategy and tactics to do well at a sport.
Let your child explore other sports, including contact sports (with proper protective gear) such as entry-level football, basketball and hockey. If your child is interested, this is also the age at which they can normally start competitive sports, where keeping score and tracking wins and losses are essential.
Remember, each child matures at a different pace. Even if they are physically and mentally ready, some children might still need your help to master the basic elements of a sport in a safe environment away from their peers.
Team games or solo sports?
Our own childhood memories of team sports can influence the sports we consider suitable for our children. Remember that your child's personality is also an important factor.
More assertive children may like the group atmosphere of being on a team and feel more comfortable holding their own in front of others. More reserved children, meanwhile, might prefer the independence of typically solo sports where they can improve at their own pace.
Team sports provide a number of social and interpersonal benefits, but individual sports build self-reliance, patience and internal drive. As a result, there are positives for your child whether they play team sports such as baseball, soccer or hockey or take part in more independent pursuits such as running, swimming or gymnastics.
How to help a child succeed in sports
Many of the benefits of organized sports are achievable only when children's skills are nurtured by parents and coaches and there is a balance between competition and fun.
- Offer positive feedback to help boost your child's confidence.
- Reflect together on losses to help your child deal with disappointments and problem solve for future events.
- Search for activities where you can talk to the coach and find out how they work.
- Foster a positive attitude towards sport, whether a child is winning or losing. Focusing on fun and fitness above all else will do wonders for your child's development.
- Aim for no more than one sport per season.
- If your child is taking part in a competitive sports league, let them have enough downtime in their schedule so they can catch up with friends, spend time with family or even turn to a non-sporting hobby to unwind.
- If your child is not sporty, try taking up a new sport as a family. Children who feel unskilled are more willing to take part if they see a parent or sibling pushing through embarrassment to engage in an activity.
Once a child finds a sport they like, they will enjoy it and want to stick with it, even if they have had to try out a few other sports at first. And if your child is not destined to be a great Olympic athlete, you will still have helped them develop a lifelong habit of physical activity – and that is worth more than any gold medal!
- Organized sports can improve a child’s self-esteem, teach them about teamwork and help them develop self-discipline and social skills.
- A child should only take part in an organized sport that matches their sport readiness. This makes sure the sport is safe and enjoyable.
- Parents can help a child stick with a sport by focusing on fun and fitness rather than perfecting skills.
- When considering activities in which to enroll your child, take time to talk to the coach and find out how they work.
- Allow your child enough downtime away from sporting activities if they are taking part in a competitive league.