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.