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Healthy Competition: How much is too much?



Hawke Hansen spent the summer juggling swim meets, tennis matches and baseball games.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

My son spent the summer juggling swim meets, tennis matches and his All-Star baseball team, which made it to the state tournament. He is only 10.

He loves it, but as his mom, I wonder: Is this crazy? How can I help him manage his perfectionist personality and the pressure he puts on himself and gets from coaches? And how do I help him remember it’s all supposed to be fun?  

Participating in youth sports offers great benefits: learning to be part of a team, getting regular exercise, making friends, gaining confidence, instilling discipline and working on sportsmanship, including how to lose.

Yet research shows that 70 percent of kids drop out of sports by age 13, for reasons that include pressure to perform, time constraints, and the fact they stop enjoying it. This seems exactly the age where the benefits of sports could prove more crucial than ever. So how do we as parents help set up our kids to enjoy athletic activity, in whatever form, for the long haul?

Here, several local experts weigh in.

When and why should they start — and stop?

There’s no reason preschoolers can’t play soccer or T-ball, as long as parents are signing them up for the right reasons, says Dr. Celeste Quitiquit, a pediatrician who specializes in sports medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“The biggest thing is to emphasize play and experimentation, not competing or getting ahead in a skill,” she said. Instead of asking what the score was, instead ask: “Did you have fun?”

Kaitlyn Carey, who counsels athletes of all ages at Pacific Northwest Sport & Performance Psychology, says that by kindergarten and first grade, team sports can help kids socialize and learn to work together.

She encourages parents to talk with their kids about the commitment a sport requires ahead of time. If kids want to quit, parents can refer to that conversation and encourage them to fulfill that commitment before giving up.

“There are some kids you need to push or they just aren’t going to do it,” Quitiquit said.

Others may be so unhappy, parents might decide to wait until they’re older or try something different, and that’s okay too.

And kids, like my son, who want to do it all, need some downtime. Quitiquit says there is evidence that kids whose structured sports time (not counting recess or playing outside) exceeds more hours per week than his or her age are more prone to injuries and burnout. Even the most die-hard young athletes need at least one day off a week, and a break of one to three months, she says.

Longtime coach John O'Sullivan, who founded the Changing the Game Project to make youth sports a more positive experience, says the most important thing is to ensure young children have a “multi-movement childhood” in which they move different parts of their bodies. This can take many forms, from team sports to tumbling, karate or parkour.  

Remember, it’s about the kids

Ask yourself: What’s my intent for signing them up? Is it because you think you’re preparing them for a college scholarship before they’re in elementary school, or because you want them to have be active and enjoy themselves?

“It’s better to see sports as a developmental opportunity rather than winning at all costs,” Carey says. “Some parents find their own worth in a child’s ability to excel in sports. See the bigger picture of what sports can offer.”

Many of her young patients say pressure from parents is what makes them want to quit, and research backs that up. Parents must also understand it’s okay for their children to lose and make sure they know that.

“It’s often one of our first experiences in loss and grief and things not going our way,” she says.

O’Sullivan says today’s competitive youth sports environment has taken a lot of the enjoyment out of athletics for children, and he aims to change that.

“The kids have to own it,” he says. “They need to play on their own terms, not because of your dreams for what they could be.”

Realize that youth sports teach lifelong lessons

Whether your children are too hard on themselves or want to give up too easily, you can help them find value in sports without setting them or you up for disappointment. Ask questions like: What are you enjoying about your team? What makes it hard for you?

Quitiquit says parents can help kids set honest expectations and realistically define their roles on a team. Remind them that even the greatest major league baseball players strike out. And if your child isn’t the top scorer or greatest defender, maybe they are excellent morale boosters, or just enjoy running.

Indeed, if both you and your kids can hone the right attitude, youth sports can be rewarding in the long run. “Sports teach kids mental toughness, how to handle someone being critical of them, learning to push through something that’s hard, and not to give up on things right away,” Quitiquit says. “They learn to rally teammates when they’re down, and to respect other people. Those are huge life skills.”

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