Do you hope your child will make new friends through sports? Does your husband envision a full athletic scholarship? If you answered yes to both questions, you’d better discuss the value of sports in your family.

While playing a sport is surely a positive, conflicts can happen. When the sport interferes with family time, is stressful for the child, or the coach’s values and the family’s values don’t mesh, youth sports can cause more than muscular strain. Jim Lobdell, parent educator, youth advocate and coach, says, “The biggest problem with youth sports is that parents don’t pause, look at the big picture, and think about what really matters to the family.” 

Perhaps you’ve signed up your child to teach him ‘life skills’. Or maybe it’s just a way to keep her healthy and active and away from the PC and TV. Lobdell advises, “Parents need to know why they want their kids to be in sports.” Once you’ve done that, he explains, be sure your behavior reflects your professed values.

Five things to think about before it's time to navigate a youth sports dilemma:

  • What are our goals for our child in sports?
  • How will the sports experience fit in with our family needs? What is the time or financial commitment – will that work with our family?
  • Evaluate what youth sports experts tell us: that kids need to ‘just play’ more, that sports should be fun for the child, and there is currently too much organization in youth sports today.
  • Does the sports team/club align with our values? (You can usually find out by talking to other parents and reading the club’s mission statement in printed literature or on the web.)
  • Most importantly, how is our child responding to the sports experience? Does she bug you to be on time for practice or cringe when you mention the coach’s name? Pay attention to her cues.

As the saying goes, "For every thing there is a season". And sports are no different. If you're intent on signing your child up for sports early, be careful. Statistics show that 70% of kids that join youth sports too early will quit by age 13. Sure, they may choose an ‘X games’ path, or find passions outside of sports like theater or music, but some go down the dangerous road of disengaging from all extracurricular activities.

So what can you do as a parent to find a balance in youth sports for your child?

For ages 3-8, sports should be all about fun, informal play, and exposure.
  • Be active with your kids; incorporate games as part of family play; learn to “feed balls.”
  • Take the kids with you when you play sports.
  • Go to the park for “free play” with like-minded families.
  • Keep a ball bag in the car and go for bike rides with sports equipment.
  • Encourage kids to try new things and give them space to like/dislike them.
For ages 5-9
  • Continue what you’ve done in the earlier stage.
  • Make sure organized sports are still about fun. Kids have plenty of time to learn about competition and performance later.
  • Volunteer to coach to ensure focus is on play, not just winning.
  • If you join club sports, make sure 1) your kid wants to join and 2) the club aligns with your values.
For ages 9-13
  • This is a critical juncture with lots of options and complexities. Keep the romance going: love for the sport has to last a long time.
  • Unless there’s a compelling reason, beware of specialization. For this age group, it’s usually still too early to determine the “right” sport.
For ages 13-18
  • Recognize the benefits of multiple sports, periodization (modifying training according to the rhythm of a season).
  • Fun still has to be the central motivator.
  • Choose teams wisely when you have a choice.
  • Excesses of specialization can reveal themselves with:
    • Burn-out
    • Overuse injuries
    • “Peak by Friday” mentality (the ramp-up time for matches and games needs to be reasonable)
    • “Eggs-in-one-basket” dilemmas (when a child specializes in one sport and then things don’t work out)
    • Unfulfilled expectations
Avoid burnout and encourage the joy. Get on the same sports-page as your spouse. Try to resist signing your kids up for organized sports until they want to join and keep the emphasis on fun as long as possible. By the time your child develops technical skills, he or she will truly be playing for the love of it.