As we celebrate the month of April as National Youth Sports Safety Month, and look ahead to May’s National Physical Fitness and Sports month, we also celebrate the positive impact that sports has on the lives of our youth. But that doesn’t happen by accident. Ensuring that youth sport experiences are positive becomes the responsibility of not just parents and coaches, but the entire sport setting in schools and community locations. That includes sports organizers and the athletes, themselves.
Let’s begin with the positive impact of sports on youth. First and foremost, when kids participate in sports they should have the opportunity to play in a supportive environment that nurtures skill development, is age and ability appropriate, develops enhanced fitness levels, and most of all…is positive and fun! The more opportunities they have to engage in activity, especially through physical education, the greater the opportunity they have to become more physically literate, gaining the confidence, competence, motivation, and knowledge to be physically active for a lifetime while exploring more activity opportunities and challenges. Thus the young participant can transition from all-inclusive physical activities to sport participation…at their own level of readiness and at their own stage of development. Early sport specialization should not be encouraged by either coaches or parents.
Looking through three different lenses, we can see that sports have a positive impact on the lives of youth through three separate, yet interlocking avenues: health benefits, academic and cognitive benefits, and social and emotional benefits. But like many things, there is a balance between benefits and negative impacts. Here are three ways to make sure your kids stays safe and happy while benefiting from participating in sports.
Health: Participate in Developmentally Appropriate Sports
From a health perspective, we know that participating in any regular physical activity helps build and maintain heathy bones, joints, and muscles, develops the cardio-respiratory system, reduces blood pressure, assists in maintaining a healthy weight, and overall reduces the risk of chronic diseases. To attain these positive attributes, youth should be participating in sports activities that are developmentally appropriate and use equipment that is appropriate for their size and level of ability. To keep kids safe from injury on the field, and based on the age of the participant, coaches and parents should review the rules of the game, all equipment, and the actual playing field to determine if modifications are necessary to ensure safety for all.
Academic: Avoid Excess Stress on Young Athletes
There is overwhelming scientific evidence about the relationship between physical activity and academic performance. In recent years, research has focused on the impact of regular bouts of physical activity on the executive functions of the brain, which leads to better concentration, memory, and attention in class, thus impacting academic performance. However, keep in mind that there are just so many waking hours in a child’s day. Parents and coaches need to be cognizant that sports practices during the week should not put any undue stress on the young athlete where participation winds up competing with their academic learning time. In other words, a child should not have to choose between practice time and completing their homework assignments. Placing undue stress on the young child will only lead to the child dropping out of sports if the pressure becomes unbearable. It’s also important to remember that participating is sports should also be respected and a part of the child’s decision.
Social and Emotional: Be Supportive in Sports Environments
Looking at the social and emotional benefits of sports participation, we can clearly see how participating on a team helps form social bonds of friendship and leadership development. Team bonding assists in the development of social skills which enables kids to deal with emotional pressures inherent in their everyday lives. Sports participation further develops the ability to understand how to handle winning and losing through the development of sportsmanship while learning to exhibit positive behaviors and a proper code of conduct at all times. Discipline and teamwork become the norm rather than the exception when the sports environment both fosters and encourages positive behavior. Parents and coaches play a critical role in the development of sportsmanship through their own role modeling. They need to constantly scan the environment and listen to what the kids are saying. Kids need constant reinforcement and encouragement and need to be nurtured in a supportive sports environment. Bullying on the part of athletes, and yes, in some cases parents and coaches, should not be tolerated and should be reported to the competition organizers immediately. The child will learn on field values and behaviors by watching those in the leadership role. Kids build character development and an enhanced level of self-esteem when they are provided with the opportunity to participate in an environment that is fair and equitable. This is where parents, coaches, teachers, and volunteers play a critical role!
Youth sports participation offers many valuable and positive opportunities for kids that will last a lifetime. If the youth sports environment promotes healthy social and emotional experiences while adhering to growth and development principals, then there is a good chance that kids will experience positive benefits. It’s up to all of us to foster a positive, supportive, and respectful youth sports environment.