Starting in their preschool years, we sign our kids up for gymnastics, Little League, soccer, dance and karate classes. And for good reason—studies prove that activities like these greatly benefit kids’ cognitive, physical, and emotional development. They allow our kids to explore and discover their passions, inclinations, and their abilities. But, as kids get older—usually during elementary school—some drop activities in order to specialize in one. As parents, it’s tough to know if we should encourage our kids to commit to a sport in order to get really good at it (and maybe make the middle school and Varsity teams, or even have a shot at a college scholarship), or let them continue to dabble and simply have fun without pressure to excel.
“It’s critical that parents see the big picture and realize that sports are just one window in a child’s life,” advises Aubrey Fine, a professor at California State Polytechnic University, a licensed psychologist, and the author of The Parent Child Dance. “At the end of the day, the real purpose of sports is to let kids feel like champs, enjoy themselves, and benefit from having what sports gives them—a healthy body and mind.”
Here are five tips for encouraging and supporting healthy athletic participation, and preventing injury and burnout:
1. Specializing in one sport before age 12 or 13 is a bad idea.
Experts agree that kids should play multiple sports because it makes them better all-around athletes. They advise parents not to limit kids’ participation to one sport until kids are old enough to know that they truly enjoy the sport and understand what it takes to commit to it.
2. Too much too soon leads to injury.
Studies show that early specialization often leads to injuries, such as concussions, sprains, and torn ligaments. And, it can also lead to a hasty burnout for kids just getting their footing in life.
3. Kids—not their parents— must own the sport.
Nothing kills a kid’s enjoyment more than an overly pushy parent. Studies show that 70% of kids drop out of organized athletics before becoming a teen—most because playing just isn’t fun anymore.
4. You love your child regardless of their participation or success.
“Parents worry that their kids will lose out if they don’t give them appropriate training, but their focus should be on making positive experiences and raising well-balanced individuals,” says Fine. “There’s so much beyond being a super athlete.”
5. Both participants and parents must be prepared to sacrifice.
While we shouldn’t quell our kids’ passions, it’s wise to help them create healthy balance. Because of the time demands of specializing in a sport—lessons or practice, training, and often times travel— plenty goes to the wayside like homework, family and unscheduled free time. Not to mention the sacrifice required by parents and siblings of the raising star, who give up time, and often time financial support for their own interests.
Like most aspects of parenting, it comes down to finding a balance that works for your child and your family, and doing what it takes to maintain it. “Thirty years from now, when today’s kids look back at their childhoods, we want to them to remember supportive adults, fun participation, and teamwork,” says Fine. “Share in their sport life, but let it be theirs.”