Youth Sports

Youth Sports – The Role of Organized Sports in Your Child’s Life

Exercise provides your child with many benefits including physical exercise, fun, confidence, and a sense of community. And for many children, sport is the most natural and fun way to express elegance and excellence in their young life.

With these benefits in mind, and hoping to provide your child with the best possible opportunities, you and other parents dutifully enroll your children for selected local youth programs. Surely this is the single best way for children to pursue their interest in sports, develop their abilities, and get the most out of the experience. But what is it?

Benefits of Organized Sports

Organized sports, managed by adults, offer one avenue for a child to learn and appreciate sport. Skill clinics and traditional youth development leagues ideally allow knowledgeable coaches to teach children specific sports skills and team play along with sportsmanship and life lessons. Proper teaching, balanced with age-appropriate competition and skill level, can provide a great experience for young program participants. In addition, activities are supervised, helping to ensure your child’s safety.

However, don’t make the mistake of believing that self-organized exercise will give your child the best overall sports experience. Organized exercise is only one part of the equation.

Rich Beginning

In my youth (and perhaps you) playing and learning sports was a multifaceted developmental experience. It started with my Dad introducing me to the sport by playing catch and giving some basic instructions. Too young to play in the youth league at the time, I can also remember my father sometimes taking me to the local baseball field on warm summer evenings to watch Little League baseball games. For the most part, I remember stopping afterward for ice cream. In elementary school, a sports teacher begins our basic teaching in various games and modified sports. Kickball games during gym class and breaks provide a fun introduction to team sports. At seven or eight, I was playing my first neighborhood pickup baseball and soccer game. Being one of the youngest,  I was just hoping to get the occasional chance to catch the ball and make a few swings at the plate. I am grateful for the opportunity to play with the older boys and be part of a ward group. As I grew and became a more accomplished athlete, my role increased–and this success only fueled my enjoyment and interest in the sport.

Learn to be Independent

But it is important to understand that this environmental game is more than just playing sports. They also learn how to interact with other children – without the help of their parents or other adults. We learn how to recruit the neighborhood kids, organize games, handle arguments, balance our individual competitive instincts against the needs of others in the group, and otherwise manage games so that everyone wants (or at least continues) to play. Often, it’s a balancing act to keep everyone satisfied and the game goes. Depending on who is playing and our mood, the game emphasizes casual fun or more serious competition. But most importantly, we control our experiences—we learn to be more independent.

Complementary Roles in Last Year

For us, our organized youth sports activities are separate and complementary experiences that help fill our weekday evenings and Saturday mornings. In some ways, organized sport represents a formal test of our everyday pleasures and games. We accept that these youth leagues are run by parents, are more structured, and usually more competitive. It’s still a fun and fulfilling experience–run by a caring coach who balances competition, learning, and fun. That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of stress, fear, and boredom — or the occasional bad training. In my first year of football, I was the youngest (and the lightest). Trying to get over the bigger boys is a scary experience. While playing youth baseball, I also remember each year facing a pitcher who had an incredible fast ball, but was also very wild.

So what are the important elements that make up my teen’s sports experience? They involve parents, gym teachers, pick-up games in environments that provide opportunities for unstructured, self-organized play–and organized sports. The latter is only part of the whole.

Organized Sports Today

But this is a new world–and some changes are definitely for the better. Title Nine, for example, has opened the world of sports to millions of young girls. Other changes include more double-paying families, more single parents, 24-hour news that makes us sensitive to the potential dangers our own children face, and an expanded universe of non-sporting activities available to a child. Unlike Title Nine, these changes are more diverse in their benefits and drawbacks. But one truth is for sure, parents are now leading a life full of personal and family activities.

In a generation of busy parents, it’s no surprise that organized sport is now taking on a much bigger role. Scheduled, highly structured and safe, organized exercise more easily fits into today’s lifestyle. Why not hope that organized sports can be the beginning and the end of your child’s sports experience?

Unfortunately, placing these heavy hopes on an organized youth sports program is bound to result in failure in one way or another. The limited number of volunteer trainers with varying skill levels, different age groups and skill levels combined into one league, and differing attitudes about how to balance fun and competition, all make it difficult to produce a program that fully meets the needs of each participant. As a result, complaints emerged that traditional youth sports programs were too competitive, did not provide equal play time, and failed to provide the best opportunities for younger beginners and less skilled children to learn and have fun.

A Better and More Balanced Approach

So, how do we provide the best sports experience for our youth in today’s world? I suggest that parents embrace a principle embodied in our past – balancing participation in organized sports with other developmental opportunities that include direct parental involvement and independent play that is separate by the children themselves. Don’t just outsource your child’s sports education to an organized youth sports program.

Even in a world that is turning more complex, you are still in control of your choices. Take time to play catch-up with your child, limit “electronic” time, let it go a little (take chances as your parents did for you) and get your child out to play with the other neighborhood kids. Urban, suburban, and rural environments all present different safety concerns and potential risks. Only you can determine how much risk you are willing to take. But ask yourself, “Is your neighborhood really less safe than the one you grew up in–or is our ubiquitous 24-hour news cycle just sensitizing our society to  potential danger?”

If you’re not comfortable with unsupervised play, or your work schedule keeps you and your child away from home during the day, try finding a facility where your child can play with others in a self-contained setting. For example, it’s not uncommon in an afternoon at the local YMCA to see younger kids engaging in a fun game of two-on-two pickup basketball or a more competitive full-court game. The YMCA provides a safe and semi-maintained environment that still gives children the opportunity to do their own thing.

And finally, take an active interest in your child’s organized youth sports experience. Find local programs that offer the best mix of fun, learning and competition to suit your child. Be supportive. But also strive for a healthy balance between parental involvement and giving your child the freedom to explore the sport on their own. Don’t believe that an organized youth sports program is the overall answer or that you are a bad parent for not putting your child in every available program. You may find that everyone in the family benefits from less emphasis on organized exercise.