9 Ways to Help Your Child Excel at a Sport at a Young Age

sportskidsThe world of youth sports has become more competitive than ever, with parents looking for every opportunity to give their children an edge over the other players. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for success, especially for very young players. There are, however, ways you can help to encourage and support your little athlete’s development. Here are nine ways you can provide your child with the foundation he or she needs to be a youth sports star.

  1. Keep It Fun – For young children, sports is about having fun while learning fundamentals. When the game stops being fun and starts feeling like a chore, or a source of stress, burnout will soon follow. While you should absolutely work to instill good sportsmanship qualities and skill honing in early childhood, making practice feel like facing down a dragon every day isn’t usually a recipe for success. In your drive to help your child succeed, try not to fall into the trap of exerting so much pressure you take the fun of playing away.
  2. Be Supportive, Not Smothering – You want to support your child’s interest and natural abilities, not force them into an uncomfortable mold with overbearing attitudes. This can be an especially difficult balance for parents with unrealized dreams of athletic excellence, who often see their child as a vehicle for wish fulfillment through whose success they can live vicariously.
  3. Think Twice About Early Specialization – At first blush, it would seem that focusing all of your child’s energy in a single direction is the best recipe for success. This especially holds true as youth leagues and traveling teams become more popular, demanding more and more of the year. Realistically, though, a relatively small percentage of athletes even on the professional level were single-sport athletes throughout childhood. Most play at least two separate sports, often specializing at the junior varsity level. Participating in a number of sports hones general athleticism, which lends itself later to excellence in specialization. Early restriction to one sport may actually restrict her growth as an all-around athlete, diminishing her potential.
  4. Be Realistic About Time Commitments – Burnout doesn’t just happen when parents exert too much pressure. It also happens when a child is unprepared for the time commitment of sports participation, and begins to feel smothered. Making sure your child has a realistic understanding of the time commitments for sports participation before joining a league or making the team can stave off some of this shock.
  5. Maintain Age-Appropriate Intensity – From traveling teams to summer camps and intensive clinics, it’s easy to elevate your child’s training intensity to professional levels. Unfortunately, this is also a very effective way to increase the chance of sidelining injuries and burnout that ends a career before it begins. Keep training intensity to an age-appropriate level, and let your child have some control over her schedule.
  6. Address Weaker Areas Constructively – Even a star can feel like a failure if areas of weakness are constantly pointed out and criticized, with no constructive plan for improvement. If your softball player’s pitching needs a bit of work, look into ways of improving this specific skill, rather than just pointing out it’s an area of weakness. Stripping away your athlete’s confidence is not a recipe for success, long-term or otherwise.
  7. Seek Out High-Quality Programs – While you may want to think twice about signing your child up for highly competitive programs whose demands outstrip those of her education, it’s still a good idea to research all of your program options. Something a bit more accelerated than the neighborhood youth league or a community center training plan may be in order, especially for young prodigies who need more advanced training.
  8. Make Room for Downtime – Laser focus is the hallmark of athletes beyond the varsity level, but it may be counterproductive for very young children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least two to three months of downtime out of the year for young athletes. Not only does this allow your child time to explore other areas of interest, but can also be integral to their physical health. One serious injury can end a promising career, even at a very young age.
  9. Keep it All In Perspective – While the desire to see your children excel in any area is a strong one, it’s important for sports parents to keep their expectations in proper perspective. Even among the greatest athletes, only a select few will go on to perform at the collegiate level. Of that small percentage, even fewer will play professionally. Putting all of your child’s future eggs into a professional sports basket may make them great, but will not ensure a career and can leave them ill-prepared for adulthood if they have no other plan. Strive for balance and a well-rounded life, and your child will be more likely to succeed.

Though it may seem counterproductive to take a more relaxed tack to encouraging success, you can do more for your child’s continued success as an athlete by supporting long-term growth. A prodigy at seven may be burned out by thirteen, rendering all of your effort moot.