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Competitive sports for children are starting younger and younger. More children are starting playing competitive sports and younger ages and more leagues are dropping the age minimum for playing on a competitive level. So is playing a competitive sport good or bad? What is the reality of playing competitively?
Our experience with competitive sports so far is limited with only two children being old enough to participate. Brayden swims competitively and plays in a competitive basketball league. Kaitlyn plays competitive soccer.
Now, there are things McKenna could be doing competitively. She could be doing dance or cheer. She is almost ready to do swimming. She is approaching the skills needed for gymnastics. But she is 6, and for our family, we have decided 6 is too young to commit to something on a competitive level. My main reason for that thinking is that I want my children to experience multiple activities before choosing one to focus on. Once you choose a focus, other things have to go.
That doesn’t mean 6 is too young for every child out there. That is the decision we made for our family. Decide what is best for yours.
- The child has to work to play: When a child leaves the recreation sports world and enters competitive sports, your child now needs to earn that playing time. The coach no longer works to make sure everyone is in for the same number of minutes. Different coaches do things differently, but typically a coach rewards effort, heart, and dedication. Skill is also a high consideration on playing time. So if a child wants to play more, a child has to put in the effort to earn it. If your child doesn’t love the sport enough or have the will to put extra time into it, moving to playing competitively might not be the best option for your child.
When Brayden started competitive basketball this year, it was his first team sport on a competitive level. It was his first time having to try hard to earn playing time. He has risen to the occasion. On top of his team practices, he gets up early twice a week and he and my husband spend time practicing before school. He has seen improvement and he is learning a valuable lesson about what practice can do in a sport.
It is worth noting not all competitive avenues will have this benefit–for example, in competitive swimming at Brayden’s level, any registered swimmer on a team can enter a race at a swim meet for many meets. Some meets do have requirements for you having previously raced at a certain speed or faster, like state meets.
- Skills improve: When you play against better players, you get better. You are also practicing more. This last spring, Kaitlyn joined a competitive soccer team for her first time. Previous to this, she played soccer for two months each fall and two months each spring. Once she was on the competitive team, that season extended through the summer. So she played her two spring months and continued two practices a week all summer (save a two week break). Then fall season started. Once it ended, they continued practicing one time a week for two more months. They are on a two month break right now. When you play that much more, you just get better.
- The child plays with people who know the game: As you continue to get older, you still get children playing in a recreation league who have never played the sport before. There is nothing wrong with that at all–I think children should be allowed to join at any age. I never played a minute of soccer until I was pushing 30, so I am all for people trying new things when they want to. Some children can find it frustrating when they want to play a game on a certain level and can’t because not enough people know how to play. Sometimes rec teams get put together unfairly so you have a team of primarily new kids and a team of 6 year veterans. Some children will enjoy playing competitively in order to play against children who know how to play.
- The child learns to channel nerves: The stakes feel higher competitively. You might go to tournaments. Even at the end of a normal season, teams are given placings and medals or trophies that reflect those placings (which I happen to think is fabulous). All through life, we face nerves. Nerves facing tests in college. Nerves facing a job interview. Nerves making certain decisions. Nerves having a baby…nerves are part of life.
- Children develop close friendships and bonds: When you spend your time with people, you usually get close to them. I love the friendship that comes from being a part of a group or team. When you work together toward common goals, a bond develops.
- Competitive sports can teach invaluable life skills: Practice pays off. You have to be a team player. You need to rely on other people. Sometimes you can work your hardest and still not win. Patience. Endurance. Tenacity. These are all skills that a person develops when they put the time and effort into something that a competitive team requires.
- Children learn to work hard physically: Your body can do so much more than you think it can or it thinks it can. Physical fitness builds mental toughness. My husband played football growing up. He often reflects on his high school workouts as a football player and knows if he could handle that, he can handle whatever life is throwing his way at the time.
- Limits number of sports a child can play: There is only so much time in a day. There is only so much you can dedicate in life. Once you dedicate time to one sport, it limits your options in others. Most sports have seasons and a child is able to play each sport in its respective seasons, but once you go comp, your season extends for that sport. That will means if you start another sport, you will have to give some things up in another. For example, last Fall, Brayden did rec basketball. He missed two of his games because he was racing in swim meets. This winter, he is doing competitive basketball. He is having to miss swim practice one day a week for basketball practice. He will miss part of a swim meet because of basketball later this month.
- Skills aren’t built from other sports: Because your ability to commit to other sports may be limited, you might not be able to play other sports enough to develop those skills. Many skills are transferable among sports. This article really sums up the importance of being able to play multiple sports.
- Injuries can increase: We are finding as more children play one sport year round that injuries are increasing. Children are still growing and are susceptible to injuries from focusing too much on one sport. This article is helpful if you want to read more about this.
- Children get burnt out and end up hating the sport: This happens often. I have a friend whose niece was recently offered a full scholarship to a university to play soccer. She turned it down. By that point, she decided she hated soccer. She had played it too much.
We had a neighbor who breathed soccer. He played it as soon as he got home from school until it was time for bed. We moved, but a few years later saw the father and asked how soccer was going. “He hates it. He won’t even look at a soccer ball anymore.” Burn out is a real thing, even when children love a sport.
- It takes a lot of time: A competitive sport takes up a lot of time for the child and by association for the entire family. If you have one or two children, playing a competitive sport might be very manageable. Make that several kids and things get tricky.
- It takes more money than the same recreational level sport: Competitive sports take a lot more money. It is more money to register to play the sport. Then you add jersies. You often add equipment for the team costs. You have tournament registration costs. Travel costs. It all adds up, and it adds up quickly.
- Children fear making a mistake and losing the game for the team: Remember that pressure I talked about in the “good” section? That doesn’t always lead to a “good.” Sometimes it leads to a “bad” with a lot of stress and anxiety over making a mistake.
- Children can have such little playing time that skills don’t develop or they don’t enjoy it: When a child signs up to play a sport, the child wants to play the sport. The child doesn’t want to sit. Rarely are kids happy with sitting. If a child is on the side of sitting on the bench more than playing, the child will not enjoy it. The child will also risk not improving skills-wise with not as much playing time.
How to Get the Good and Limit the Bad
- Find a good coach: A good coach is so valuable. A good coach will work with the children
and give them as much as he/she can to help the child improve. A good coach will focus on more than the win in the particular game. A good coach won’t accept too many players on the team so kids have to sit more than is reasonable.
- Require commitment: If your child wants to participate in a team sport, make it clear what will be required. Once the child is signed up and on board, make sure the expectation is that commitment will follow. We make it clear that we don’t care if the child is the best or not, but we do want our child to be doing his/her best. We are not paying extra money and putting in extra time unless the child is willing to put in extra effort. So much of the “good” list only happens if the child works. Finish out the season and reevaluate when it is over.
- Make sure it is fun: The experience needs to be enjoyable for the child. That will depend on your child’s attitude, your attitude, and the coaches attitude.
- But learn from the challenges: It won’t always be “fun.” There will be times of hard work. There will be failures and freak accidents that seem unfair. There will be bad calls. Learn from the challenges. At one swim meet, Brayden dove in the pool to swim his best stroke. He was having his best meet of his short career and this was going to top it off. But his goggles came off in the dive. He panicked and looked at me with fear in his eyes. I told him to keep going. He did. He got probably his worst time ever on that stroke, but he finished that race and wasn’t ever disqualified. His team cheered for him like I have never heard them cheer for any one person. Most have been there. He felt support. He felt pride that he completed even under hard circumstances. We point out that those are moments he will remember forever and draw strength from in the future. Those are learning moments.
- Allow breaks: Don’t push your child too hard too fast. Burn out happens in every competitive avenue. The way to avoid that is to allow breaks. Kaitlyn had the opportunity to do a winter soccer league indoors. We chose not to do that so she could freely play basketball and let soccer leave her brain for a few months. Kaitlyn doesn’t even know what her favorite sport to play is yet and we don’t want her to focus in on one sport. Brayden should be going to swim team practice five days a week. He is ten years old. We have him go three days a week. We also make sure we work it out so one of those days is not Friday. We will also make sure if things are super busy with other stuff and he can only go twice one week that we are okay with that. We don’t want him to hate swimming and want to give it up because he got too much of a good thing at a young age.
- Know the process: Assuming this was your child’s idea, your child will likely start out loving it. Then reality will set in and your child will not like it and will want to quit. This is the hard parenting moment. I strongly encourage you to have your child finish out the season and reevaluate at the end. Look, a competitive activity is hard work. It starts out seeming glamorous, but as soon as the reality of the work required sets in, the child may want out. This is how Brayden was with swimming his first year. I told him that he wasn’t allowed to quit mid-season, but we would reevaluate after it was over before signing on for the next season. By then he had been through the hard times, over the hump, and really enjoyed it. He continued. Your child needs to see what happens when you push through and keep trying.
This is a common process in people in general. I even see it in my kids in the musicals I direct. It starts out exciting, but the beginning is a lot of little details and practicing songs and just learning dance moves. There is a long period of time it isn’t a lot of fun (except for those kids who can’t get enough–there are always those kids). If they push through, however, the payout is fantastic.
- Don’t sign the child up unless the child really wants to do it: Competitive activities take enough effort that you don’t want to sign the child up unless the child really wants to put in the required effort. Explain what will and could be required. Don’t sugar coat it. Talk about how it will be different from rec sports. Talk about what could be hard. Also talk about what can be great.
- Diversify: Make sure your child is able to play different sports and do different things. Kaitlyn still takes piano lessons. She still takes dance class. She is still participating in a musical. She played softball and basketball. Brayden still takes piano lessons. He participates in scouts. He is in a musical. Beyond that, make sure there is still time for downtime at home and time to play with friends. Free play is important.
- Encourage effort: Be accepting of effort. Don’t expect professional performance. Expect best effort and nothing more.
- Point out improvements made: “You have really been working on rebounding and today you made a lot of rebounds! That work paid off.” It is good for children to recognize when their efforts have resulted in improvement.
- Be okay with a loss: A lot can be learned from losing a game. Be okay with losing. It is easy to be happy when you win. Losses will come and you all need to be okay with that.
- Don’t disparage the coach in front of your child: I won’t even do this in a rec situation. Sometimes a coach does something you wouldn’t have done yourself. But as soon as you talk bad about your child’s coach, it opens the door for your child to blame the coach and not accept personal responsibility. I am sure there are times people will need to say, “Hey, what your coach did wasn’t right.” Most of the time, however, it is best to keep comments away from your child.
Also, most of the time, my husband is the coach for our kids. Coaching isn’t easy and it is full of judgement calls. Most of the time, coaches are doing the best they can.
- Carpool: The impact of time on the family can be greatly reduced by carpooling. With Kaitlyn’s soccer, she would need to be at games 30 minutes early at least. If we had a conflict with that 30 minute window, we would call up a team mate and see if they could take her and we went in time for the game to start. We would take other kids when other people needed help. Carpool to practices. Help make life easier for everyone.
- Take personality into account: Is your child an introvert? If so, be very mindful of the number of days a week your child is committed to something. Brayden is an introvert and can only handle so much time away from home before he gets flustered with life. Kaitlyn, on the other hand, is an extrovert and seemingly can’t get enough time out having fun playing sports and doing other activities with friends.
- Don’t make it about scholarships: Odds of even playing as a collegiate athlete are slim, much less a full scholarship. Statistics say around 7% of high school athletes go on to play in college. Not all players get a full ride scholarship. Don’t do it for the scholarship. Your money that you are spending on competitions, gear, and fees can go into a savings account instead and you can pay for college that way.
- Don’t live your dreams through your child: Don’t force your dream on your child, whether it be that you achieved your dream and want your child to enjoy it also or that you wish you had pursued a dream and didn’t. Many children will do things just because their parents want them to even if they don’t enjoy it.
Your child can have a great experience with competitive sports if you are wise about the process. Do it for the right reasons. Find a great coach. Expect difficulty. Learn from the difficult times.