Countless parents want to know how to be properly supportive of their children who participate in sports. Usually, most fathers and mothers have good intentions, but when it comes down to it, the biggest problem with youth sports is the parents themselves. The good news is that most of the current challenges in youth sports can be solved with education and awareness. So, if you care about enriching an athlete’s childhood, make sure you consider the following points. Of course, there are things to consider beyond this list, but if you tackle even just a handful of the recommendations, your child will be better off in the long run.Most fathers and mothers have good intentions, but when it comes down to it, the biggest problem with youth sports is the parents themselves, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
I am a father of four kids and own a training facility, so I understand both the business and personal sides of the sports equation. We all want our kids to be the best they can be, but if we push our kids too hard, they will likely end up having a bad experience. Much of what I recommend isn’t intuitive at first glance, but if you stop and think about what’s best for kids in the long run, you will likely agree with me. Here are 15 helpful hints and recommendations that will make a difference in your child’s growth in sports.
1. Don’t Join Travel Teams Too Early
Nearly every athlete who joins a travel team pays an unnecessary cost to play sports. Playing sports should be a right, not a privilege. Just playing sports locally has a cost, and it is simply not necessary to add travel to the equation. Most of the travel teams in youth sports are money-making businesses that actually do more harm than good. Kids don’t need to fly to the other side of the country to find the right competition, especially when an older sibling or neighbor can usually hand a convincing loss to your son or daughter.
Besides the cost of travel and club fees, the amount of competition in tournaments is too much for a young body to handle. When a kid plays the same sport year-round, burnout is likely to occur, and by the time they reach high school, the probability of your son or daughter wanting to play in college isn’t high. Save your money and let them enjoy their recreation or town league, as it gives them the opportunity to have fun and grow into the game without the pressure to win.As your child grows, choose an organization committed to player development. That means fewer competitions and more focus on practice opportunities, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
As a child grows and enters high school, traveling a few times a year may make sense, but be sure to do your homework to choose the right organization. Look for an organization committed to player development. That means fewer competitions and more focus on practice opportunities. Playing for a team that competes as much as possible just for exposure is often a road to burnout and injury. Even if a young athlete is truly national-level athlete material, competing all the time isn’t necessary to become an elite athlete, as college athletics has plenty of opportunities to improve. If you want your son or daughter to make a college coach excited, be sure you tell them they play multiple sports because you are giving them a wide array of movements and experiences to learn from.
2. Teach Your Kid How to Swim
You don’t need to turn your son or daughter into the next Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky, but you need to make sure they are aware of the risks and requirements when it comes to enjoying the water. Whether it’s a small pool or an ocean, the inability to swim can lead to a life-or-death scenario. Learning to swim is a life skill that is just as important as learning to read and write.
As kids grow up and gain their independence, the parent may not always be around. It’s good peace of mind for parents when their son or daughter knows how to swim, especially if a water situation should arise. Kids who are competent in the water are safer when participating in outdoor activities such as boating and going to water parks. For those parents who want professional coaching, this is one of the few times when getting a qualified instructor early makes sense and is recommended.Learning to swim is a life skill that is just as important as learning to read and write, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Don’t expect your school to provide swimming instruction anymore. In the past, colleges required students to pass a swimming test in order to graduate! Now, swimming is seen as optional, and, like reading, there are an unfortunate number of kids growing up not knowing how to swim. Even if your child doesn’t enjoy or excel at swimming, it’s one of the few activities you need to put your foot down on and require. Kids are often reflections of their parents, so if you don’t swim or don’t know how to swim, it’s likely they won’t either, unless you intervene with lessons.
No matter their interests in other sports, kids need to learn how to swim. Who knows—if they love it, they may grow up to be the next Olympic champion, but start with safety first.
3. Play Games Year-Round, Not Sports
Most sports are demanding on adult bodies, so you need to evaluate the assumption that playing sports is good exercise for kids. Games and activities that are sport-like but usually less competitive in nature are important for exposing kids to a wide variety of athletic challenges. For instance, pickleball is great because it’s quick to learn and encourages more kids to get involved. Throw a frisbee around or play simple games such as tag or pick-up versions of sports rather than “over-organized” sports.
Kids should enjoy the play part of sports, not need to be the next Tom Brady or Serena Williams. Game play focuses on the experience of the moment, not trying to win or make a squad. Kids don’t have to win or lose to be productive, so instead of giving everyone a trophy for participation, just eliminate the score and focus on the fun. There are many games and activities that are not about winning or keeping score, such as playing catch or shooting hoops, so don’t worry about your son or daughter getting enough structured sports.Kids don’t have to win or lose to be productive, so instead of giving everyone a participation trophy, just eliminate the score and focus on the fun, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Sometimes, too much coaching leaves kids robotic and less instinctual, rendering your child less athletic. As kids mature and head toward middle school, games can become actual sports games, but limit their competition so they are not doing too much. Playing six games over a two-day tournament every single weekend is too much on developing bodies. Tournaments are fine if the games are abbreviated and modified, but most of the time, playing too many competitive games for hours leaves kids exhausted and flat.
4. Stop with Youth Conditioning Programs, Please
As kids mature and become adults, the need for formalized strength and conditioning programs increases. But having a child replicate the same training as a college football strength and conditioning session misses out on athletic development. There’s nothing wrong with medicine balls and barbells, or even bodyweight training, but we need more physical education dealing with how to move. An athlete who is 8 or 9 shouldn’t necessarily be exercising; they should be playing and learning.
For example, activities like an obstacle course allow kids to self-challenge and explore movement. Using watered-down strength and conditioning programs in middle school undermines the opportunity for kids to learn to run, jump, and throw properly. Conditioning and barbells are not dangerous—they just enhance athleticism; they do not create better movers. A combination of teaching and training is best for youth athletes and doing only one or the other leaves kids with large gaps in physical literacy.
5. Be a Good Sports Fan
One of the most overlooked problems of sports is not the athletes, but the fans. As parents, we are role models for our children, and we should treat a sporting event like a positive experience. It’s okay to “boo” bad sportsmanship or dirty play, but don’t heckle athletes who are not performing well if they are trying. A modern sporting event might not be a cheap experience for a family after you pay for tickets, concessions, and parking, but that doesn’t give us the right to be a bad fan in the stands.
Showing a positive and composed demeanor to your son or daughter teaches them to become good fans and, hopefully, good teammates. Often, a child-athlete will not be a starter, so they will need to be a good teammate to their peers when they are on the bench. If you are a good fan to begin with, you will be a better teammate when you are an athlete competing. It is essential to learn to respect officials and referees from a young age, and bringing a healthy fan experience to youth sports is even more important. It’s disgusting to see parents fighting and being mean to children, and to stop it, we need to start teaching the next generation to become good fans in sports.
6. Don’t Forget to Play with the Dog
Something as simple as playing with the family dog will not result in medals, but it will be a rewarding experience for everyone involved. When your son or daughter plays with your dog outside, it not only helps your pet, it may even result in your child becoming a better athlete! Dogs are fast, agile, and bundles of energy. Going outside and chasing and fleeing from a dog is fun and challenging for young kids.
One of the biggest gifts in life is spending time with someone, and kids today are playing less in general and likely leaving “man’s best friend” out of the picture. In fact, a 2018 study by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that 56% of dogs were overweight or obese. It’s not surprising that with less-active children come less-active dogs.
You can play catch or keep away with a dog—it doesn’t matter what. Just playing with a dog is a great way to teach kids responsibility for someone else. If a child-athlete understands the need to keep another living being healthy, they will likely respect their own need for exercise in the future.
7. Host a Wiffle Ball Tournament
A surprising idea that I stumbled upon a while ago is the idea of having kids create a playoff system for a game that is timeless but dying off. Wiffle ball is fun and easy to play and requires very little officiating to run. The reason we like tournaments with Wiffle ball is that it gives an opportunity for the kids to organize the game, such as deciding on home run distances, policing outs when plays are close, and removing parents from stands.You don’t need to attend a sports camp to be a better athlete—you have plenty of options for development in your own town, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
It balances Little League games and, while a tournament may sound competitive, it’s more about everyone playing each other than finding out who the best team is. You don’t need to create winners’ and losers’ brackets; just make it a round robin format so everyone can play each other. You can make it coed and mixed age groups, as long as it’s balanced so the tournament is a healthy competition, meaning it is not too one-sided. You don’t need to attend a sports camp to be a better athlete; you have plenty of options for development in your own town.
8. Learn Gymnastics Fundamentals
The heart and soul of most gymnastics activities is body manipulation, not a ball or implement. The best way to learn to become more athletic is by learning fundamental gymnastics actions, and not competing is perfectly fine. Before we start scoring the proficiency and style of a movement, we need to make sure kids are safely able to do core movements in gymnastics.
Years ago, we saw the term “tumbling” used interchangeably for gymnastics, and while it was wrong, the intent was right on. Gymnastics develops plenty of upper and lower body strength, and as the athlete ages and grows, the demands of the exercises increase as well. You don’t need to do a floor routine to get value from gymnastics; you can simply learn to climb a rope and balance dynamically without fear of injury.If you are a parent looking for physical activities for your young child, enroll them in a basic gymnastics program before getting involved in t-ball or flag football, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Kids need gymnastics more than ever, as they are moving on to specialized sports too early. Gymnastics, like dance, is for both boys and girls, and teaching them to value coordination and speed at an early age is a great head start for becoming a better athlete. If you are a parent looking for physical activities for your young child, I would recommend enrolling them in a basic gymnastics program before getting involved in t-ball or flag football. The development of all-around strength and coordination will go a long way in helping develop skills in traditional competitive sports later on.
9. Reinforce Unstructured Play
You can play a sport, play a game, or just play. Parents need to let kids just enjoy being kids, not worry that they are not adding the right ingredients to become a better athlete. A happy kid has the best chance at becoming a great athlete, so let your kids do activities that are just fun without any structure at all. Games are part of the formula, but you don’t even have to play a game at all to be a successful athlete down the road.
Games have rules or structure, while sports have rules and an end where half the participants or more are losers. Free play is just enjoying the moment, like jumping on a trampoline or jumping off a swing. Riding bikes was always a favorite of mine. It was especially fun to ride on local trails through the woods. Riding up and over small hills, over rocks, and through streams was always enjoyable and messy, and I developed a good bit of coordinated riding ability.
You don’t need to follow a strict set of rules or guidelines, and that fosters creativity and exploration. Plenty of options that have some structure like foursquare and hopscotch exist, but they have very minimal rules and kids don’t need a coach to play. Unstructured play removes the adult from the equation, and that is the best gift you can give a child, as it encourages them to learn to teach themselves.
10. Make Dodgeball for Everyone
Dodgeball isn’t the problem with physical education; it’s likely the way we treat each other that is the culprit behind a bad dodgeball experience. When those outside the trenches weigh in on experiences they don’t know firsthand, we see a distorted reality that isn’t a true depiction of the problem. Dodgeball should not be seen as anything outside of a sport, as it’s not dangerous and not unhealthy to a child’s psyche.
Imagine being the kid who strikes out and lets a team down in a Little League title game compared to a gym class that plays for time rather than a score. The game of dodgeball isn’t about picking on the weak; it’s about learning to find ways to contribute and be crafty. The game is very self-limiting with risk, so if you are not as athletic, you can play defensively.
Some versions of dodgeball include alternatives rules where each player can contribute in different ways outside of throwing, dodging, and catching. One great way to play is, instead of a player being eliminated from the game, you add a movement exercise and then they rejoin the game. This version is great as the game almost never ends, and kids get plenty of movement and exercise. Kids will always have to deal with activities that they are not the best at, so blaming dodgeball for hurting a child’s morale is just as foolish as banning spelling bees or science fairs.
11. Demand Physical Education for Movement Literary
Physical education is one of the first classes cut or eliminated by schools, and that is a major mistake for both sport and academic achievement. Along with recess, having constant exposure to movement is one of the best ways to help kids focus and learn their subjects in school. Instead of complaining or discussing why other countries like Norway or Finland are better models than the U.S., make sure you organize locally by attending school committee meetings. Don’t settle for answers that sound more like convenient excuses—fight for the health and well-being of the students.
Schools are under pressure for testing performance, so change will be a prolonged battle. Small wins, such as another recess period in the morning or another half hour during the week, will add up in the long run. Keep in mind that you are fighting for real physical education, activities that teach skills, not wellness for children. With childhood obesity so prevalent, many schools resort to fitness classes that are not engaging or effective for actual weight management. Kids should be playing games and learning activities all the way into high school. Some high schools have adopted the weight training class to pay for strength and conditioning coaches, but we need to remember that specialization is already extreme at that point, and small exposures to different sports and activities may improve an athlete as well.
12. Roughhouse and Wrestle with Both Sons and Daughters
It’s sad that the sport of wrestling is at risk of being left out of the Olympics, and the only way to save it is to support it. Wrestling is not just for boys anymore, and all athletes, not just male ones, should learn how to wrestle. The popularity of MMA and other combat sports is a great sign for the future of the sport, but for kids, it’s okay to wrestle and embrace the chaos of one of the world’s oldest sports.
Wrestling is not about violence and doesn’t create aggressive children. In fact, it allows them to be expressive and improves their connections to their parents or siblings. Roughhousing, provided it’s safe, is normal and expected for children. Even toddlers love the exhilaration of the twisting, turning, and flipping of rough-and-tumble play with a parent. Not only are rough-and-tumble activities fun, but they are a fantastic avenue to develop the all-important vestibular apparatus of the inner ear, which is involved in balance, coordination, and emotion.
These days, more and more kids struggle to control their emotions and temper, and it may be because they have very little experience to know what is right and what is wrong with rough play. There are several articles available online that are supported by enough psychologists to justify that you are likely just fine roughhousing with your kids. Read this article on play-fighting for yourself and be your own judge.
13. Hire Private Coaches Sparingly
When kids are not excelling early, there is a temptation to do more work or tutoring. There are plenty of benefits to working with a coach, including building self-esteem, but when a child-athlete equates all of their value with sport, it becomes unhealthy. Kids don’t need to be great at sports right away, they just need to have fun playing them. Parents need to realize that kids will get better with enough time and practice.There are plenty of benefits to working with a coach, including building self-esteem, but when a child-athlete equates all of their value with sport, it becomes unhealthy, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Obviously, it doesn’t feel great socially to not excel, but provided they feel included and are not viewed as a liability for team play, not being a starter has value in the long run. Kids must learn to problem-solve without the help of an adult. Bailing kids out of athletic ineptitude won’t help them when they are on their own, so don’t hire a private coach unless a child wants to be better. I have found that when the young athlete asks for help, and not the parent, it is a good time to look for an outside coaching source because the kid truly wants to get better rather than it just being the parents’ dream.
Kids don’t always learn to be good teammates when winning is rewarded and learning is a means to an end. Kids who work with private coaches tend to forget the value of practicing with their team coach, and it becomes a political nightmare when too many cooks are in the kitchen. Add in an overzealous parent, and soon the process is too crowded with opinions.
Private coaches are not the problem. At times, they are a part of the solution. But hiring them for the wrong reasons and wrong time is not a good idea. Parents, coaches, and the youth athlete should be involved with the discussion on private coaching, and when the group thinks it’s a good idea, then proceeding with tutoring or coaching makes sense.
14. Let Your Kids Officiate or Play Alone
While I encourage families to be together for dinner, having parents chaperone every sporting event or practice is a bad idea. Kids need some free time away from mom and dad. Helicopter parenting has actually decreased a child’s ability to think and reason since thinking and reasoning are done for them, and playing with others is a social skill, not just a physical endeavor. More and more kids need to play sports and control their environment by learning to compromise, negotiate, and be diplomatic. Organized sports are too organized, forcing kids into rules and a structure that are more about what the parents want and not what the kids need. Allowing kids to create their own rules and/or change the activity to what they perceive is fun will tailor sports to their enjoyment.Organized sports are too organized, forcing kids into rules and a structure that are more about what the parents want and not what the kids need, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
One way to do this is to make a sports bag for the kids, and fill it with Wiffle balls, bats, kickballs, tennis balls, frisbees, etc. Give the kids the bag, some space, and free time, and then get the heck out of the way. Parents forget that kids just want time away and/or freedom, as they are too often controlled by adults. Not having fans or parents watching allows kids to experiment, take risks, and express themselves through sport in different ways than during the constraints of organized sports.
The optimal balance between structure and open free play is unknown, but when sports are too formal, the fun starts to wane and the drop-off rate increases. Kids need just enough structure to be on the right path, but parents should not be the trailblazers, the youth athlete needs to be.
15. Practice, Practice, Practice
Sometimes repetition is necessary to learn a skill or sport, so don’t just hope that everything will fall into place. Batting practice in baseball is a great example of why a kid may literally take 4–5 swings in a game and technically fail to reach first base even if they make contact. Spending time in the backyard or with a bunch of other kids is not expensive, and they should only seek out hitting instructors as needed. It’s pointless to spend time and money on technique if the coach doesn’t have much to work with.
Parents should be involved at early levels but, as the child matures, leave the growth and improvement to qualified coaches. You don’t need to have a child spend countless hours with mind-numbing drills, but if a kid likes to shoot around for hours, let them. Usually, children self-regulate when they are tired or bored, so trust that they will decide how much is enough.Parents should be involved at early levels but, as the child matures, leave the growth and improvement to qualified coaches, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
If a child-athlete wants to be better, you will know it: They will talk often about how much they love the sport, and they will put in the effort to get better. This is how you will know they are enjoying the journey. Kids who are stagnating because they don’t know how to properly execute a task need a hint or two, not full immersion in a coaching program or extra lessons. It’s okay to struggle, provided it’s productive, and that means experimenting, not just expecting different results by doing the same thing over and over.
A Smile Is the Best Sign of Athletic Development
Remember: A happy athlete is one who will more than likely improve, so don’t lose sight of the fact that sports at early ages are not meant to be professional or elite. Even young talents need to enjoy their childhood and just be kids. What we are seeing is a growing trend, especially with more affluent families, to chase excellence with resources instead of being patient and trusting a process that leaves us feeling less in control. Sports are a gift, and we need to embrace the fact that talent and time tend to be more influential than investing in coaching and training. Of course, proper instruction and having good coaches matter, but athleticism is more about genetics and environment than any other combination.
Support your children by adding an enriching experience of as many activities as possible, and only start specializing as they get closer to adulthood. The truth is that most of the successful athletes in college are multi-sport athletes because they were talented and didn’t burn out. Forcing a kid to specialize in the hopes they will get a scholarship or be accepted by a better school is a lousy plan, and it usually leads to injury and/or disappointment.