How to Encourage Your Child in Sports

We’ve all seen the reality show. You know, the one where the guy auditions on national television – in front of millions of people – under the delusion that he can actually sing.  Several eardrum-shattering notes later, we see that he most certainly cannot.  You wonder why no one was honest enough to tell him that he should pursue another dream.

   Well, when it comes to sports, New York psychologist Jeffrey Kassinove, Ph.D., ( opines that parents should not rush to judgment (or honesty).  Childhood obesity is at an all-time high in the United States, so getting children to participate in some sort of physical activity is important.  Many children lead such sedentary lives – often parked in front of the television set or video game console for hours on end – that a child who wants to be active should be applauded.  Granted, not all children have the capacity to become professional athletes, but that should not stop a parent from encouraging a child to participate.

   According to Dr. Kassinove, there are ways to help your child as he learns a new sport or enjoys one at which he may not (yet) be proficient:

Practice one-on-one with your child

   If your child enjoys baseball, for instance, but has trouble hitting the ball, spend an afternoon (or several) teaching him your tricks.  Not only will your child acquire a new skill that he can show off the next time he plays, but you will have enjoyed some invaluable quality time with your child.  The key is to enjoy the time spent and not expect the practice to have immediate results.  After all, says Dr. Kassinove, “In real life, practice makes better, not perfect.”

Lower your expectations

   One mistake that parents make, says Dr. Kassinove, is expecting a child to be perfect.  If, even after practicing with you, your child still cannot connect bat to ball, you need to celebrate his successes, however minor, on the field.  In soccer, for instance, you might praise the child for kicking the ball, even if she did not actually score a goal.

De-emphasize winning and focus on fun

   Take the emphasis off scoring or winning and point out how much fun she is having being on the team with her friends.  Even if your child loses a game (or three), tell her how proud you are of her for going out there every week and giving it her all.  If your child is enjoying herself, she is more likely to want to continue participating in a sport. 

Teach children the concept of the team

   As clichéd as it sounds, there is no “I” in “team.”  Help your child to see that a team’s success depends not on one person, but on everyone.  Dr. Kassinove points out that as great as Michael Jordan was in his heyday, he did not make every shot and his team still lost some games.  No matter how great one particular player is, he cannot win unless the entire team works together.

Remain optimistic and convey that optimism to your child

   “Optimism is going against the odds,” says Dr. Kassinove.  “In order to be president of the United States, for instance, you have to beat one in 300,000,000 odds, yet when asked what they want to be when they grow up, many children say, ‘President of the United States.’  So why can’t they be the next Michael Jordan or Derek Jeter?  The odds are much better!”
   There is nothing wrong with being enthusiastic. Expose your children to a variety of activities and, sooner or later, they’ll find one they really like. “Children’s self-esteem is fragile,” adds Dr. Kassinove. “Parents must be benevolent managers and provide feedback in a loving manner.”

   James Leeper, a coach with the YMCA, tells a story about a girls’ basketball team that he began coaching several years ago.  When he first took over, a few of the girls did not know how to hold a basketball properly, much less dribble and shoot.  Despite his best efforts, for the first two years, his team did not win a single game.  Then he changed his approach.  Instead of focusing on winning, he encouraged the girls to go out and have fun.  And when they lost, he reminded them that the world had not stopped spinning; they would win another day.  Being freed from the pressure of winning had a positive effect on the team.  They became more relaxed at games; the relaxation became confidence; and the confidence translated into focus.  This year, the team is headed to the championships. 

   It is understandably a source of consternation for parents to see their offspring struggling. The instinct is to swoop in and “rescue” them by redirecting their focus onto another activity where they will shine.  Resist the urge.  Children become better adults by meeting challenges head-on, says Dr. Kassinove. Worst-case scenario:  they lose a few games or decide that perhaps this particular sport is not their life’s calling.  Either way, they’ll be better off for the experience.

Nurturing Young Athletes

   James Leeper, who runs a basketball clinic for the YMCA in Tarrytown and is a coach with the American Youth Soccer Organization, and Michael Chiariello, director of All Sports Day Camp at the Pace University Campus in Pleasantville, offer the following tips:

• Expose your child to several different sports, but focus on one.  Most children (or adults, for that matter) cannot master more than one sport.

• Shop around for the best setting for your child.  There are competitive leagues and recreational leagues.  If your child is just learning a sport, there should be no emphasis on winning.  And because all players on a recreational team get equal playing time, the child will have the chance to learn the rules of the game, but at her own speed.

• Choose an appropriate sport for the age of your child.  A child of 4 or 5 may not possess the motor skills necessary to handle a basketball well, but may enjoy the running and kicking involved in soccer.  Getting a child started in a sport too early (before she can grasp the concept of the game) may end up frustrating the child to the point where she will develop a dislike for the sport.

• Make sure the coach’s teaching style gels with your child.  Each coach is different.  A child should be challenged, but the coach’s emphasis should not be solely on winning.

• Stay positive and supportive.  Do not assume that because your child does not appear to be a prodigy, he will never excel at the game. A child who is enjoying a sport and developing camaraderie with his peers will be more inclined to practice, hone his skills and develop a proficiency that you may not have thought possible.

Mirna Martinez Santiago is an attorney, writer, professor and mother of four-year-old Brendan.