How To Choose The Right Sports Environment For Your Child

How To Choose The Right Sports Environment For Your Child

You can't win 'em all. Or so the cliché goes. But many coaches—and families—put a great emphasis on the outcome of sports games. Is a competitive environment right for your child, or should you pick a lower-pressure team environment?

Each spring children pull on soccer jerseys or baseball pants to get ready for their favorite sports seasons. As a parent, your first concerns might be about costs, time commitments, transportation, or childcare issues. These are all valid concerns. But one of the most important decisions you’ll make happens long before your child complains about not being on the same team as her best friend or volunteers you to bring snacks every week.

In sports, as in life, someone wins and someone loses. One school of thought says that kids should participate in competitive leagues to master new skills and get in shape. Children in competitive leagues are taught to set outcome-related goals, work toward them, deal with adversity, and evaluate their results at the season's end. Others believe children should participate in noncompetitive environments where children get equal playing time to really learn a sport and the associated skills while getting as much enjoyment as possible from the activities. There are so many other places where children are competing, shouldn’t sports just be fun?

So, who's right? It depends on whom you ask. And, like many other aspects of childrearing, it will depend on your child, her age, and her personality. Some children will be competitive from birth. Others enjoy less stressful environments. All children, however, should experience playing sports in both competitive and non-competitive arenas.

Equal-Opportunity Play

Longtime youth soccer coach Steve Ettinger, who has coached children at the elementary through high school levels, says that when children are first learning skills and rules associated with their sport, they benefit from an equal-opportunity environment. They will learn to accept people, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses, which is essential throughout life. Working toward shared goals within a supportive group environment will also help children understand the importance of celebrating others' differences. If children are immersed in hyper-competitive environments before they are ready they will be unsuccessful and will not enjoy themselves. They may quit out of frustration or stop trying.

"At the early stages of athletic development, kids need to hone their sports skills before even thinking about winning or losing," Ettinger says.

Upping the Ante

At a certain age, usually between ages 8 and 12, a lack of competition creates boredom and lowers incentive for more talented athletes. Many times, this is when children who have mastered sport-related skills start to stand out from their peers. It’s no coincidence that Amateur Athletic Union and other traveling teams for highly skilled athletes form around then. At these ages, coaches believe children are able to work to develop their skills and mature enough to handle the pressures of competition.

Parents should observe how their child responds to situations where her performance is evaluated alongside peers before moving her to a more competitive environment. How does she respond? Is the child aware of differences in ability level? Does she become upset if her performance is not "the best"? Does the child understand that even if she messes up she can do better next time? When she is ready to step into a competitive situation, she'll handle constructive criticism and losing with grace, says Gina Lipton, a licensed psychologist in Manhattan.

Lipton says it is essential that children respond well to these tests and move on to a competitive environment as soon as they can. She fears that treating all children as equals for too long is a disadvantage to children, their coaches, and their teammates.

"If you treat all kids the same for too long, they won’t be able to believe the feedback that they receive from the adults who coach them," Lipton says. "Those who are talented will discount the positive feedback that they receive—as will those who are less able. All will be deprived of accurate feedback that they can use to improve their skills."

By creating an environment that directly rewards success, values like the importance and practical application of hard work, dedication and teamwork are stressed. Children can see how mastering these skills on the field or court will make them more successful in school, work, and beyond. They will also be able to take appropriate risks, learn from mistakes, and share experiences with their teammates and coaches, says licensed psychologist Fred Zelinger, who practices in Cedarhurst, Long Island.

Children will also learn to cope with failure and persevere. They will leave their team able to take direction and feedback from an authority figure. Finally, they will learn that even when they perform at their best they, or their team, might not always win, Lipton says.

"That's true in so many areas of life—and it's important that children learn to judge themselves based on criteria other than winning," Lipton says. "The playing field is an ideal place to learn intricacies like these."