Youth sports are an easy sell. So many of the virtues parents want to instill in their kids are right there on the playing field: leadership, cooperation, competitive drive and goal setting, to name a few. Organized athletics are a convenient outlet for physical activity and allow children to develop coordination, learn new skills and socialize with friends.
It sounds like a win-win, but youth sport experiences are not all positive. And the pressure to beat the other team is often where it starts to go wrong.
Who cares the most about winning? Parents, says Declan Connolly, a father of four who teaches exercise and strength physiology courses at the University of Vermont. He also directs the school's Human Performance Lab.
Connolly is not your average parent roaming the sidelines. He has worked as an exercise physiologist consultant with athletes of all ages and skill levels, including major league hockey and football players.
Connolly writes and lectures regularly about athletic performance and exercise program development. He spoke with Kids VT about some of the pitfalls parents encounter while navigating the pressure-filled fields of youth sports, and described five ways parents and coaches can keep kids engaged.
Every youth sports program relies on volunteers for organizing, fundraising and coaching. But the coaching piece requires more than just good intentions.
Connolly says coaches should have a thorough understanding of age-appropriate development. Without it, "You end up applying an adult's logic to a 6-year-old," he says. At the earliest ages, Connolly says, coaches should focus on space awareness and movement rather than on competition. Instead of having full-team scrimmages, for instance, Connolly advises chopping up the field into sections and creating smaller games during practice, i.e. three on three, to help players see the passing lanes. That shifts the style of play away from what he calls "the sheep mentality; everyone is in a 4-foot space around the ball."
It's not about eliminating competition, he says — kids keep score regardless — but providing challenging tasks to build coordination and hold interest.
Throwing, catching and coordination — skills that benefit a child in any sport — should come first; elements of conditioning and strategy can be introduced around puberty. For sports that require a more complex skill, such as skating in the case of hockey, it's a good idea to introduce that skill early to lay the groundwork for future participation.
There is sports performance, and then there's sports play. Parents should keep the two ideas separate, Connolly says, citing a study that found 80 percent of kids who participate in structured competition before 12 years of age never play again after 12.
"We want the kids to have fun," he says. "Then winning comes into the picture, and keeping score."
Too much intensity too soon can have diminishing returns, and most leagues recognize that with limits on how often a team can practice per week. At the younger levels, 55 to 60 minutes of structured play at a time is about enough, Connolly says. And spending too much time on one activity during practice results in chaos.
"You want to switch things up about every seven minutes," he says. "Once you get past that, balls start flying around."
"The parents' role is to drive the kid to the field and buy the pizza on the ride home," Connolly says.
"The most difficult thing as a parent is to watch your kid fail or struggle. A kid needs to learn to deal with other people, learn to deal with their emotions, learn to deal with success or failure.
"Parents actually care more than the kids care," he says. "If you want to get involved with your kid in sports, it should not be in structured sports. A postgame breakdown, for the 8-year-old, it's not on the radar screen. If he's emotionally upset, he can't separate."
Connolly suggests that parents can offer to help with a specific skill — after some time has passed — such as throwing practice pitches when that last, big strikeout no longer seems so big. Playtime should not be linked to a negative athletic experience.
The postgame analysis is "not productive," he says, "and that contributes to that stat I mentioned earlier."
Limiting a child's athletic experiences to a very specific set of skills can backfire. Injuries happen. Boredom sets in. Opportunities disappear.
"American football is not a lifetime sport," Connolly says — there isn't much opportunity for pickup games once players have abandoned organized play. "You should teach a kid to play things like soccer, basketball, tennis, golf."
Keep options open and consider the benefits of "contextual interference," the scholarly term for stepping outside one's athletic comfort zone. Presenting the body with new challenges, like forcing your non-dominant side to do the work, enhances skill acquisition and retention.
Connolly advocates for multiple sports, but the real goal, he says, is a well-rounded child.
"Athletes that have longevity are smart," he says. "They're well rounded in life and the sciences. They study information and are able to understand what they need to do with it. The more well rounded or educated the kid is, the more they're able to process the entire thing.
"Understanding what to eat, how to rest, how to study and think, that goes a long way. Often the best athletes are not the most physically gifted. They're often the best because of the decisions they make."
Connolly has a long history playing sports and is the director of UVM's Human Performance Lab. His wife, Shannon, played basketball for Vermont and for the Canadian national team, and coaches in the Burlington area. They are both philosophically opposed to coaching their own children, ages 9, 8, 7 and 4.
"It's too difficult a relationship to have," he says. "I don't want my motivation to be the reason my kid's in sports."
Youth programs would not survive without parents willing to take on that troublesome task. But it requires a concerted effort to be equitable and objective with one's own child. That, and a load of patience.
When it comes to his own kids, Connolly prefers a more hands-off approach. "Most kids are overcoached these days," he says. "They look to the sideline to see what the decision should be. They can't make it by themselves.
"I want my kid to make his own decision."
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