When it comes to keeping our kids healthy, sports offer the best of all worlds. The physical benefits go without saying, but that’s hardly where the positive impact ends. Sports offer tremendous mental and emotional benefits, too.
If you have a young athlete in your life, you may already be aware that physical activities, including sports, can help boost their mental health. What may come as a surprise is how long some of those benefits last. One study has shown that some kids who participated in group sports were less likely to experience depression as adults.
Playing sports also teaches kids valuable life skills. In group-based activities, kids learn social skills like effective communication and teamwork, and often develop lifelong friendships. Plus, healthy competition gives young athletes an opportunity to feel confident in themselves – they learn how to celebrate the wins, and how to learn from (and get over) the losses.
These are skills and lessons that can last your athlete’s entire life. And as a parent, your attitude and behavior can help them both enjoy sports and learn important lessons from them. Here are a few ways you can support and encourage your child in athletics, both on and off the field.
1. Encourage them to try multiple sports
Sports provide a valuable opportunity to teach your child about balance. And a healthy mix of activities will condition your athlete’s body in a more well-rounded way.
Even if your athlete has already found a sport that they love, they can always benefit from trying something new. Stepping into a new sport takes courage. It’s a skill they’ll benefit from practicing. It may even help them find their favorite new sport.
Participating in other activities can also improve their performance in their sport of choice. The balance and body control required for dancing or yoga, for example, translates into better performance in football or hockey.
Trying new sports also prevents the risks and injuries that come with over-focusing on one sport. Balancing the demands on the body is important, especially early in your child’s athletic career. Over-specialization is a growing trend in youth sports. And specializing in one sport too soon can be problematic. If your athlete is always using the same joints, muscles and ligaments, they may start to experience physical issues from overuse, and this can contribute to burnout.
Moderation is key. Even if it’s done for the love of the game, over-exercising can be bad for both physical and mental health. That’s why guidance from you and your child’s coach is so important.
2. Model positive attitudes and behaviors
Kids look to adults for guidance on how to behave. Whether it’s their coach, teacher or parent, how an adult reacts to a situation makes a powerful impression on a child. This is especially true when it comes to sports. It’s one thing to tell your kid that it’s just a game and to go have fun. But if you or their coach starts yelling at the referee mid-game, your child will get a mixed message. It’s important to lead by example.
If another parent, coach or child behaves poorly, take it as a teaching opportunity. Explain to your child a better way to handle it. Teach them how to respond when another player isn’t following the rules or is being too aggressive.
And be mindful that with your behavior alone, you can encourage a lot of good things: integrity, respect, positivity and good sportsmanship.
3. Don’t get too competitive in sports
Along with modeling a positive attitude, it’s important to manage how you engage with the idea of competition. Healthy competition is great. But everyone knows (or has heard about) a parent who made the sidelines awkward with how upset they got over what was meant to be a friendly game.
This type of unhealthy support sends the wrong message to kids – and it can negatively impact a young athlete’s relationship with sports. Excessive competition takes the fun out of it. And if a kid feels too much pressure to perform, they may push themselves too hard, leading to burnout and injuries.
Instead of focusing solely on competition, try to foster a learning mindset. Teach your child that it’s okay to lose. Losing reveals opportunities for growth, promotes adaptability and helps kids deal with emotions like frustration. So, shift the focus away from winning and losing to personal effort and improvement – and of course, fun. These are the things that ultimately motivate kids to stick with sports.
Keep in mind, however, that you don’t need to squelch their passion in order to promote a balanced mindset. Passion, with the guidance of a parent or coach, can translate into qualities that will make your child better at sports. Passion can also drive them to develop discipline, determination and perseverance – traits that will serve them well throughout their lives.
4. Help them manage their emotions
Kids frequently find themselves facing emotionally charged situations on the field (or court). Some negative mental states in sports are inevitable. Your child might be on the brink of making an exciting play, only to get squashed by the other team’s interference. Or, maybe another player will foul your child or hog the ball. Stress, frustration, anxiety and even jealousy can all be normal responses to different parts of a sports game.
This means you’ll have opportunities to teach your child about handling anxiety and other negative emotions. After each game, talk through plays or situations that made them feel bad. You can help your athlete figure out why a player’s behavior frustrated them, for example, and brainstorm what to do if a player acts that way again.
It’s also perfectly normal for you to feel these same negative emotions watching your child play sports. Just make sure not to let those emotions lead to poor behavior, and don’t let your emotions put pressure on your child.
5. Stay involved
You can help your young athlete best if you’re involved and aware of what’s going on. Keep an open line of communication with your child’s coach. That way, you’ll stay on top of current goals and priorities, as well as proper training techniques, so you can help reinforce those things at home.
Try to attend as many practices and games as you can. Being on the sidelines is a clear show of support for your child – plus, you’ll get to see them in action.
Always ask questions after a game or practice, whether you were there or not. What did you learn? What are you going to work on? What went well and what didn’t? These kinds of questions will help your child process what they’re learning in a more meaningful way. The answers will be helpful to you if you’re practicing with them at home. And by asking questions, you’re showing them that you care.
Finally, always look for opportunities to give your child positive feedback – not just for winning, but also for trying. Encourage strong performance and hard work. Your child is putting themselves out there and earned praise will encourage them to keep at it.
6. Foster independence
Ultimately, kids should participate in sports because they want to, not because their parents or friends want them to. It’s perfectly fine to encourage yours to try different sports or stick with the ones they’re already doing, especially early on. But as time passes, it’ll be better for them if you start to take your hands off the wheel.
Give your child the opportunity to make age-appropriate decisions when it comes to sports. At first, this may be as simple as giving them a choice between T-ball and soccer in the summer. You’re still requiring them to participate but letting them make the decision on which sport will help them feel more involved, and it may help your child build resilience when they face challenges at practice or in games.
As your child grows and you give them more freedom of choice, the goal will stay the same: you’re helping your child find an activity that they enjoy, so they’ll be motivated to work at it, develop healthy habits and stay active throughout their lives.
Do the best by your budding athlete
It’s hard to overstate the role of parents in athletics. Your encouragement, guidance and attitude can directly contribute to your child’s enthusiasm for sports. You can help ensure that your child sticks with it, and enjoys all the benefits – physical, social and emotional – of being active.
By following the right precautions, you can help your young athlete avoid injury. But some degree of risk is unavoidable. Learning how to handle bumps and bruises is yet another life lesson that sports provide.
If an injury occurs on or off the field, we’re here to support your athlete too.