Many parents come to Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, asking whether it’s good for their children to be involved in sports. Recently, a concerned father submitted the following question:
“I’m wondering if my 7-year-old son and my 8-year-old daughter could benefit from playing sports. Do you think I should make my kids do sports even if they don’t seem that interested? What kinds of behaviors can we target and work on through sports participation?
This is a very common question, both from parents of special needs children and those who are high functioning with some sort of behavioral issues. Having a background that includes sports psychology and a passion for sports, Dr. Boney sees a great deal of value for children through sports. There are things that can be learned while participating in sports that can never be learned in a classroom or anywhere else, which is why he always encourages parents to consider having their children be involved in sports. Through team sports, skill sets can be developed in a way that is difficult to duplicate in other activities, including socialization and character development skills. These are critical life skills that will later be useful in the workforce and all other areas of life. Some of these include:
- Physical limitation
- Trusting and depending on others
- Learning from failure
- Accepting responsibility for one’s role and influence on the group
It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine it not being helpful and appropriate for a child to be exposed to these skills. It is definitely Dr. Boney’s belief that children should be encouraged to participate in sports. Team sports, in particular. Not all sports are team sports and, while individual sports have their benefits, it is the socialization aspect that make team sports such a beneficial choice for children.
Team sports should be an ego and self-esteem boosting activity. From a clinical perspective, a confident kid who is able to self-regulate and manage their behavior is typically a healthy, happy child. Current arguments that children today have too high of a self-concept and are complimented too much aside, in Dr. Boney’s opinion, it is never a bad thing for a child to have a healthy, well-developed sense of self and confidence about the skills they have, which is something that team sport participation can enhance. This helps them face adversity, manage stress and overcome perceived obstacles, which is what life is all about.
How to Maximize Your Child’s Benefit from Sports Participation
- Do your homework when selecting a league for your child. The younger the child the better it might be to select a league that focuses on participation and character development over competition. As the child gains skills and increases confidence, the level of competition can be revisited.
- Ask other parents about their experiences with the league and coaches. Word of mouth referrals can be extremely helpful. Did their kids enjoy going to practice and playing in the games? Learn from their experience.
- Meet the coaches and make sure they are experienced and trained in working with children the same age and maturity level as yours. Many parents take on the role of coach and, while some can be really good, many are not. It takes special skills and perspective to be effective coaching young children. Ask about training, certifications and credentialing by the league.
- Find a sport and a league that will allow your child to have a healthy schedule balance. In addition to time spent practicing and at games, there should be time to hang out with friends and family. A schedule that creates constant fatigue, injuries, and feelings of being burnt out is not balanced.
- Pick some target behaviors to work on through the sport. These could be following the coach’s directions, having a positive attitude after a loss or talking to at least three teammates during a practice. Your child should be aware of the things that you are trying to help them build on. This also emphasizes things besides just winning. Sports are valuable for many reasons and being able to practice a unique skill set is a great opportunity for growth. Remember to pick the behaviors, look for your child to do them and then make sure you praise and shape those behaviors with verbal praise, physical touch and other types of positive reinforcement to help your child know that this behavior is important to you and that these skills are critical.
- Discuss and support the life lessons of the sport. Have conversations with your child about learning from losses, trying hard in the face of adversity and setting and achieving goals. Processing these critical life lessons with your child before, as well as after they happen, reinforces their importance. It is especially important to do this preventatively and not just in response to a tough loss or failure. Letting them know that they are doing and learning things way beyond just winning and doing this routinely throughout the time your child is involved in the sport is an excellent way of really sending this message home.
- Make the primary focus of the sport be on fun and skill improvement. Not on winning. There are many factors that affect whether a team wins or not and they are outside of the control of your child. Children should not be put in a position to get frustrated by things that are not within their control. Improving skills, having fun and making progress on their goals should be the real emphasis.
- Be a great example as a parent. Always be positive. Show respect toward the coaches and the officials, whether your child’s team wins or loses. Don’t make excuses. Don’t analyze the parts of your child’s performance that were negative. Always look for the positive. Look for things to praise and reinforce. Make sure that the experience is a good one for them. Remember, the goal is to teach your child that sports are valuable beyond just winning or losing and that they are gaining skills that are helpful and unique to that experience.
Dr. Boney appreciates the questions submitted and encourages you to submit yours at [email protected]
Utilizing evidence based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment, and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies, and local community organizations to provide these services. If you have any questions about your child’s participation in sports or would like more information about any of the services offered by our team, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.