When I raised this question at the Thanksgiving dinner table, boy did I step on a hornet’s nest! My niece said “Mom made me play sports - and I hated it!" My husband commented that in his opinion many parents live vicariously through their child’s athletic success, and my brother-in-law (whose son is a star athlete), felt compelled (justifiably so) to describe more benevolent motivations. Politics might have been a safer subject.
Many parents do feel pressure to enroll their children in team sports for the benefits we’ve heard they confer. I know I did, and when my academically talented but athletically challenged 2e children didn’t take to it, “opting out” felt like a radical move.
Let’s look at the pros and cons.
1. Having a child engaged in a team sport can help the entire family feel a part of the community. Where my children grew up, attending children’s games was the number one weekend activity;
2. Your child may make friends and feel they’re an accepted member of a group;
2. They may learn to be a team player, to collaborate and communicate effectively with others, respect for authority, coaches, playing by the rules, and self-restraint;
4. Your child may learn that life is not always fair and how to accept defeat gracefully and move on;
5. They may learn that hard work pays off and that practice builds skills;
6. Of course athletic activities provide health benefits through regular exercise and fresh air;
7. If your child is good at sports, playing can increase their self-esteem;
8. Playing a sport may simply be fun.
That’s a lot of pros. There are good reasons why many of us feel it’s something that would benefit our child. But…
1. There are other ways to bring people together and establish a sense of community than watching young children compete in a physical arena;
2. The child who is unaccepted on the playground is just as likely to be unaccepted on a sports team;
3. Team sports don’t just teach sportsmanship. Children also learn how to “cheat” or foul without getting caught. Parents can become unhinged on the sidelines, aggressively arguing with refs and coaches. This sets a poor example;
4. Your child may feel that peers (and adults) value physical acumen over all else. Why else are sports successes lauded in local papers while academic and creative ones tend to be ignored?
5. Your child may get injured. Concussions can have long-lasting negative cognitive effects;
6. Your child may lose rather than gain self-esteem. Especially if they are not very talented at sports but feel pressure to not let their teammates down;
7. The amount of time spent on team sports may be out of proportion to the value gained;
8. It is true that some parents try to re-live their glory days or have their child live their unfilled dreams and fantasies through team sports.
What do the experts say?
In May, 2019 the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) published a report detailing the benefits and risks of organized sports.
There is support for many benefits. Young athletes learn emotional regulation, taking initiative, goal setting, applying effort, respect, teamwork, and leadership. Participation is generally associated with positive social self-concept and enhanced perception of social acceptance. Children who play sports show greater stress resistance and have a lower prevalence of psychosomatic symptoms. They get a work-out and are less likely to be obese.
But there are negatives. Parents and coaches adversely affect the team sport experience, with 30% of children reporting this as their reason for quitting. Pressure from parents creates performance anxiety. Coaches may try to motivate kids by yelling at them, insulting them, or calling them names, with nearly 50% of children reporting verbal misconduct by coaches. When children observe parents and coaches behaving badly, they're likely to assume that sportsmanship is not a valued quality. Boys who play team sports are more likely to perpetrate bullying. There’s actually less physical activity achieved in team sports than one might think, with over 50% of match time sedentary. Families with children in organized sports have higher fast food consumption and fewer meals eaten at home. And some kids (like my niece) hate it.
What’s a parent to do?
Any interest in organized sports should come from the child, not the parent. If your child is interested in sports, keep the hours committed to a modest level (children should not participate in more hours of sport each week than their age in years). Make sure your child has plenty of time left for free play. Do not encourage early specialization. Parents should learn about and advocate for positive coaching.
If your child isn’t sporty, embrace who they are and uncover other opportunities for them to develop the life skills attributed to team sports. You can learn to be a team player, the benefits of hard work, and how to win or lose with grace just as easily working on a robotics team, in band, or on a theatrical production as you can playing a sport. Find a community where your child can feel accepted and valued for who they are. Your child’s self-esteem will grow from doing something they value and are eager to work hard at. In other words, team sports can be great for some kids, but are not a great fit for all.