Chutes & Ladders to Hoops and Batters: Preparing Kids for Sports

By Martha Michael

Baseball Play Youth Athletes and Sports

As a parent, you watch with amazement as the little hand you used to hold is now inserted in an oversized baseball glove. And instead of barely walking, he’s throwing to his first batter, his uniformed body standing firmly on the pitcher’s mound.

Mental Readiness

There’s a lot of advice out there about successful parenting of a child athlete, but many of those principles can be put into place before your son or daughter ever dons a pair of cleats or shoots a basketball.

Frank L. Smoll, PhD, suggests in Psychology Today that you begin with some self-reflection. He reminds parents that if they aren’t active themselves, they’re less likely to inspire their kids to be. But after that is addressed, all eyes should be on the child.

Smoll suggests that optimum success in sports comes from yielding to the children’s own interests. Let them decide what they enjoy doing, and the appropriate timing for it.

"Children who are forced into sports before they are ready usually have bad experiences," Smoll says. "By involving children in the decision-making process, they feel a sense of ownership in the outcome. This creates a greater sense of commitment: 'I’m doing it because I want to do it, not because I’m made to do it.'"

Sheer pleasure is a main component of a successful sports experience, which can have a serious effect on outcome, according to Smoll, who claims the number one reason kids quit playing sports is because "it isn't fun anymore."

"When the fun disappears, so do they," he explains.

Hoping children like sports isn't the end game, however. You also want to see them improve their skills rather than lose a mental game of comparison.

"It is particularly important that children whose skill is lagging not view this as a permanent condition," Smoll says, pointing out the need for parents to avoid one of parenting’s biggest pratfalls: living through their kids. "Parents who are 'winners' or 'losers' through their children are experiencing the frustrated-jock syndrome, which places extreme pressure on children."

Dr. Tom Brunner, a clinical psychologist in Tucson, cautions parents against an overemphasis on winning. "The (losses) build your resilience, your adaptability," he says.

Brunner shares the opinions of Dr. Scott Goldman, Ph.D., the director of Clinical and Sports Psychology at the University of Arizona: “I tell our athletes all the time, if you just want to win, go play against a fourth grader. But if you want your win to have meaning, play against someone who can beat you.”

Goldman shares the stories of athletes who were rewarded with ice cream after a win, but went straight home if they lost: "Thus, winning becomes bound up with acceptance and losing means one is not accepted or loved."

Physical Readiness

Whether they're old enough to enter the arena of competitive sports or not, regular physical activity is ideal preparation for youth sports. Then there’s timing.

"Sporting activities must be developmentally appropriate for the child," Dr. Laura Purcell says in the Canadian journal Paediatrics & Child Health. "Enrolling children in sports that are beyond their developmental ability can lead to frustration and early dropout. Thirty-five percent of children who participate in organized sports drop out every year. By age 15, 75 percent of youth no longer play organized sports."

From 2-6 years old, the bodies of children change radically, including a decrease in fat and a rise in energy expenditure, according to the article. Their legs grow straighter and their strides become longer.

"It is not until they reach the age of six years that sufficient combinations of fundamental skills are attained to allow them to begin participating in organized sports," Dr. Purcell says. Rather than an emphasis on competition, Dr. Purcell believes the focus in early years should be on development of fundamentals, such as:

  • Running
  • Throwing
  • Tumbling
  • Catching

Prior to signing up for their first season of sports, kids need a physical examination by a practitioner who has a good understanding of development. In fact, you may find after a first-time visit to your chiropractor that it's beneficial to take your son or daughter for regular check-ups. Your practitioner will have a baseline to notice changes in the health and wellness of your child, which makes it easier to diagnose conditions as they develop.

Depending on the sport your little athlete chooses, your chiropractor can focus on maintaining integrity of the joints and associated muscle development in the areas they use most, in addition to your child’s more central need of proper spinal function.

As a parent, life can throw you fastballs, sliders or curve balls. But when it’s time to get your child on the field or on the court, preparing them for the experience means you’ve got a better chance of knocking it out of the park.

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