How to avoid specialization with young kids; how to "unretire" older kids

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As youth sports becomes more commercialized, parents have become more stressed. Some kids are left behind, missing out on the benefits of sports due to money or ability. Other kids are having poor experiences due to the adults (coaches, parents, league organizers), causing them to quit sports altogether. Parents are left to navigate the confusing and frustrating world of sports on their own.

Project Play is here to help. Each month, we will answer parents’ youth sports questions on this page. Got a question? Send it via email to jon.solomon@aspeninstitute.org, or share the question with us on Twitter at @AspenInstSports.

I am a single mom and my 5-year-old boy LOVES baseball so much and would love to practice every day, but I also have two other kids that need my attention. What can I do to support him, without neglecting his brother and sister? Are there indoor items available for him to continue getting better?

Peggy Berroa-Morales, Los Angeles, CA

First, it’s awesome that your child is so passionate for a sport. Now let’s make sure that enthusiasm is nurtured the right way. Start with the end in mind, then work backwards. What benefits do you hope your child will get from baseball? If it’s a sports experience that develops social-emotional skills and healthy habits for life, resist the manic chase for him to get better.

He’s only 5 years old. Elite performance cannot be manufactured. If he plays too much or specializes only in baseball through coaching at indoor facilities, you’re increasing the risks for overuse injuries and burnout like some of the letters below. We want to keep him enjoying baseball for many years, so don’t be afraid to let him try some other sports.

Free play is important for kids. Is there a local recreation center you can sign him up for to play at during the week? Are there safe play spaces in your neighborhood for your son to throw and catch the ball with? Perhaps there’s an adult neighbor who will occasionally play with your son while you care for his siblings. Better yet, bring the brother and sister along sometimes to play too. Make it a family activity and get everyone involved.

 

How can I reinvigorate my middle school daughter to play sports? She has been unwilling to try sports. No offer we’ve made is welcome!

Derek Wiberg

Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet to get her to participate. Kids have to play sports on their own terms. There are a couple ways to possibly assist.

Have you asked her what she wants? Perhaps the sports she played in the past or you’re offering just truly don’t interest her. There are so many sports available to try. And it’s not just sports. Physical activity can also occur through bicycling, hiking, jogging, surfing, yoga, rock climbing, and so many other activities. Or just start slow and go for walks with her at night.

Have you asked her why she doesn’t want to take you up on the offers? Maybe she’s had a previous bad experience in sports. Perhaps she’s scared of failing, getting injured or being mocked by peers. It could be she feels like she doesn’t have enough time with other activities and school. Let her tell you why and make sure you listen.

Have you asked yourself whether you’re doing all you can to create a positive sports experience for her? For instance, do you regularly engage in physical activity yourself as a model for her, and do you limit screen time at home? The Project Play Parent Checklists offer 10 questions you can ask yourself, your child and your sports programs. Check each box, collect your score at the bottom, and discover videos and resources to build an athlete for life. Good luck.

 

My 14-year-old daughter has played softball for the last four years. She reached a high level of play – top four in Florida Little League softball and then went to travel ball. She played a year and quit, citing the stress associated with playing. She is now a freshman at a high school with a very good softball program. She is unwilling to try high school softball.

We have encouraged her to give it a shot and see if she can have fun again. All her friends, including her two best friends, will be playing on the team. What do I do? I am beside myself because she does not offer any real reason she is walking away. I have tried to inform her of the benefits of sports and the memories created and she doesn’t want any part of what I have to say. Any advice on how to handle this would be appreciated. This is really becoming a distraction, more for me than her.

Walter Jones

As a parent, it can be hard to see a child walk away from sports, given all you know about its potential benefits. The natural instinct is to press, since all you want is the best for them.

At the same time, it’s important to listen to your child and let them make their own choices. She did tell you why she’s quitting, even if this came in the past — stress. The best you can do is understand where your daughter’s stress is coming from: Coaches? Peers? Parents? Injuries? Then ask what she thinks will help alleviate these concerns.

At this stage, it sounds like there are no words you can provide to get her to return to softball right now. Let her find her own way – and maybe that means trying another sport or physical activity. Think back to when you played sports as a kid. When were you most happy? Was it when adults badgered you into playing, or was it when you found joy yourself in a sport? The greatest gift you can give your daughter now is to let her find her own joy.

Training coaches; creating shared-use agreements; juggling 2 sports in 1 season

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As youth sports becomes more commercialized, parents have become more stressed. Some kids are left behind, missing out on the benefits of sports due to money or ability. Other kids are having poor experiences due to the adults (coaches, parents, league organizers), causing them to quit sports altogether. Parents are left to navigate the confusing and frustrating world of sports on their own.

Project Play is here to help. Each month, we will answer parents’ youth sports questions on this page. Got a question? Send it via email (with your name and state) to jon.solomon@aspeninstitute.org, or share the question with us on Twitter at @AspenInstSports.

Let’s get started with our first mailbag.

As a youth coach I show up for all of the players. I do not teach tactics that injure or take advantage of rule vagaries. I do not teach win-at-all-cost or even that we have an enemy. I do not use war terms. I do not chastise children. I do not disagree with officials. I do not call anyone out. If I did any of these things, I would be revealing a hierarchical ideology that did not place things in order of importance to the child. 

Parents appreciate this, but other adults in the game don’t get it. Many coaches deny or won’t process that the will to win does not allow them to disregard the opponents’ health and safety. Many coaches deny that their crystal ball is faulty on who are the best athletes. Does Project Play have good science that I can use to persuade coaches at clinics that a more pragmatic and less frustrating approach is available? 

Tony Libert
Middleton, Wisconsin

First, thank you for being positive with kids. It’s the right way to coach kids. Imagine if teachers treated their students the way some coaches treat their players. Parents wouldn’t stand for it. For decades, there was a notion that coaching behavior can be tolerated because of the bottom line (winning and player skill development). That philosophy seems to be evolving.

There is literature strongly suggesting that sports offer a unique opportunity for coaches to model and teach social, emotional and cognitive skills. Given how often kids are around coaches, a coach will likely have an influence on the child, either positively or negatively. This year, Project Play commissioned the EASEL Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to produce a white paper called Coaching Social and Emotional Skills in Youth Sports, which explains the evidence behind effective strategies for youth coaches.

A simple resource for your fellow coaches is our Calls for Coaches brief. This translates the white paper into actionable calls for coaches to implement in after-school and community-based sports leagues. There’s even a checklist at the very back. Coaches are encouraged to print it out and put it on their clipboard for practices and games.

We would also encourage you to have your fellow coaches take the free How to Coach Kids online course and use the website’s accompanying resources. There are resources by sport and topics, including how to keep kids physically and emotionally safe.

Finally, ask your coaches to think about what kids want out of sports. Do these coaches ask that question to their players? In a 2014 George Washington University study, nine out of 10 kids said “fun” is the main reason they participate. When asked to define fun, the kids offered up 81 reasons – and ranked “winning” at No. 48. Young girls gave “winning” the lowest ratings. Project Play has resources about the value of asking kids what they want.

 

As a parent and a coach, I want to offer a place for kids to free play some sports. I had the idea that I would rent out one of the local elementary school gyms and just let kids play. It turns out that I, as an individual, cannot simply do this because I need to have special insurance.

So, I looked into the insurance. But I can’t get it as an individual. I need to set up my own company – and on and on. Why can’t I find a place to let my kids and their friends free play sports? Why are there so many hoops for me to jump through? I pay about $250 per month in property taxes for these schools and I can’t even use them. It is super frustrating.

Cody Vandermyn
Bothell, Washington

That’s frustrating. Without knowing all of the specifics of your situation, it’s difficult to say exactly why this is happening. Fear of liability is usually the greatest concern. You’re right about the broader point: schools offer a great opportunity to be a community hub for physical activity and unstructured free play.

First, find out if your local school district has a shared-use agreement for its gyms and fields to the public after school hours. Shared-use agreements allow public and private owners to broaden access to their underutilized facilities for community use. They’re something in writing that allows two entities to create needed boundaries for the use of a facility while opening up access to more kids.

Studies have shown that expanding recreation spaces through shared-use agreements has positive effects on increasing physical activity among children. Just having these conversations can open up doors, but there’s not a lot of information out there on best practices to create these agreements. One valuable resource is from Change Lab Solutions, which developed different models for shared-use agreements based on the relationship between the parties. Good luck.

This past spring season was the first real time with my kids that we had activities (soccer and lacrosse) happening at the same time for the same kids. This is something that many families face, but I have not found a lot on rules of thumb to use regarding calendar conflict.

I found this one post from a parent helpful: “Our basic rule of thumb is a tournament trumps a game, and a game trumps a practice. If games conflict, then the team with the fewest players/greatest need usually wins. When practices conflict, we try to be as fair as possible. If one team holds more frequent practices, the team that practices less frequently is the one we’ll attend. We try to be as fair as possible, but it is a balancing act.” Thoughts?

Kevin B.
Boston, Massachusetts

There is no doubt that the time demands on kids and parents are real. Our new youth sports parent study shows that kids who play lacrosse average 14.1 hours per week in the sport – more than any other sport and above the national average (11.87). Soccer’s average is 10.79. So, if your child meets those averages, he or she is playing soccer and lacrosse about 25 hours a week.

Worth considering: Should your kids really be playing two sports at the same time and for what purpose? Maybe your kids truly love both sports, and if so, that’s great. We are bullish about encouraging kids to play multiple sports. But what seems to be happening increasingly is that kids play multiple sports simultaneously – meaning they’re likely still playing one sport year-round against the advice of medical experts, who warn against burnout and overuse injuries when kids play too much.

What really needs to happen is sport providers in a community should talk with each other and come to agreement about how best to resolve scheduling conflicts, based first and foremost on the needs of a child. Right now, that rarely happens – organizations and coaches are operating in silos. That creates conflicts and health hazards, while also crowding out room for family dinners and  free play, which is so important for youth and even athletic development (as Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw spoke about in support of our Don’t Retire, Kid campaign).

Stay tuned, as Project Play plans to release in the coming weeks the Teamwork Toolkit, a resource designed to help parents and local organizations talk with each other and develop a shared agenda to improve the state of youth sports in communities like yours.

Introducing Project Play Parents Mailbag

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Youth sports today can be stressful and confusing. Some kids are left behind due to costs or ability. Others are having poor experiences due to the adults (coaches, parents, league organizers). Often, parents are left alone to figure it all out.

Project Play is here to help. Each month, we will offer advice on key questions submitted by parents and caregivers. Got one? Send it via email (with your first name and state) to jon.solomon@aspeninstitute.org, or share the question with us on Twitter at @AspenInstSports.

We may not have every answer to your specific question. But we can share resources and insights on how to increase the chances your child will have a positive sports experience.