Coaching Sports Readiness Skills

A parent writes: Our seven year old is very hesitant about sports. Much to my husband's disappointment, he  tells us that he doesn't like to play but won't say much more. We wonder if he is afraid to compete but are unsure as to whether we should push or back off. Any suggestions?

Youth sports has become one of childhood's most popular rites of passage. In addition to being a stage to showcase athletic talents, building blocks for healthy social and emotional development are often put into place. Children who avoid this arena do so for a variety of reasons, but personality and environmental factors are often chief among them. Obstacles such as fear, anxiety, or withdrawal may interfere, or parenting approaches that intimidate or alienate the child through unrealistic expectations may be the culprit.

Parent who witness "athletic alienation" in their children tend to form snap judgments that fall at different ends of the spectrum; either they tell themselves that sports "just isn't their thing" or they push too hard and strike out. Neither response is advisable, and both run the risk of your child being denied the wonderful experiences and growth that youth sports entails.

Instead, try heeding these coaching suggestions:

Fun before fundamentals
Parents (or coaches)  who narrowly emphasize proper form or other fundamental aspects of the game while instructing young children can inadvertently close a window of opportunity.  If children don't experience enjoyment and feel some degree of competence they will often lose interest and motivation. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that competence is a prerequisite for fun or that competence must be defined by official standards. Youngsters playing basketball can feel competence simply by having the ball hit the backboard or rim if supervising adults demonstrate with words and enthusiasm that such efforts are worthwhile.  

Relax rules and expectations for beginners.
As the prior example implies, competence can be defined in whatever way parents dictate. Three strikes doesn't have to lead to an out; footballs that fumble out of bounds can still be picked up for touchdowns.   Such "Daddy rules" can be explained to children as different from the rules that will apply when they play with children their own age. This handicapping of the game can help to build a child's motivation to eventually play by the "real rules" once sufficient confidence has been built.

It's o'kay to let them win.
Fathers are especially prone to insist that young athletes not receive any special treatment when they compete. Thus, each time the child plays against the father they lose; not exactly fertile ground for fun and motivation to develop.   Armed with the mistaken belief that if you give them slack they will expect it from others, some fathers may do more harm than good  in this area. A more balanced approach  is to explain that you want to "even out" abilities by playing (indoor) basketball on your knees, using your non-dominant hand during a game or simply just let them beat you from time to time. Lose with graceful poise   and you will be showing your child how to do the same.

Choose your words carefully; young athletic egos are in formation.
Unlike some other areas, sports coaching and discussions can  be extremely hard for young children's self-esteem to bear. Boys, in particular, may have already compared themselves to classmates at recess and found themselves lacking. Girls may have quickly eliminated sports from consideration due to wishes to conform to a particular non-athletic clique. Whatever the reasons, it's important for parents to unearth them and proceed with nonjudgmental sensitivity. "Let's talk about how you feel when   playing or when watching other kids play - it can be helpful to figure out if feelings are taking some of the fun out of the game," is a good way to start. It's also important to deal directly with the "I'm no good" self-critique. Help them see the goal of sports as fun, friendships, and feeling good - not winning or being better than other kids.