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Kids and Team Sports: Should Parents Push Their Children to Play?

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Flickr: Edwin Martinez1
Flickr: Edwin Martinez1

For me, spring doesn't begin in March or April. Spring begins when the air fills with the crack of the bat or the snap of a ball hitting a glove. It begins in February, when baseball spring training gets underway.

And I'm not just talking about professional baseball. As a parent, my real joy comes from watching Little Leaguers play. I can't wait to root for my kids on the ball field.

What about you? Is one of your parental pleasures watching your children play organized sports? If so, what if your son or daughter is less enthused about playing than you are? Should you push them?

This is a question that I, as a father of two boys, struggle with all the time.

You may be thinking I'm probably one of those dads who want their kids to excel at sports. You know the kind -- a parent, with the best of intentions, who pushes their kids to compete in a sport just because that's the sport dad played and enjoyed so much. Or worse, a dad who shouts from the sidelines and complains to the coach that junior doesn't get enough playing time.

Actually, I'm not that kind of parent. As a young child, I dreaded team sports. I realized firsthand how humiliating it can be to strike out three times in front of everyone, or to have that fly ball sail over your head in the outfield. Fortunately, my parents recognized my fears and didn't force me to play. I only took up team sports later, after I had matured and acquired the confidence to compete.

I think most of us agree that for kids who are anxious about playing on teams, it's best not to push. Instead, channel their energies toward individual sports such as tennis, golf or martial arts, or perhaps into non-sporting activities such as art, music, writing or acting, where they can gain confidence and, more importantly, have stress-free fun.

But what about children who have an interest in team sports, but are reluctant or unsure? Wouldn't a little pushing be a good thing? After all, kids won't know whether they'll like a sport, or even be good at it, until they try.

I believe there's an important difference between pushing children to excel at sports, and pushing them to try.

My strategy has always been to first ask my sons if they're interested in playing a particular sport (or for that matter, any new activity). We talk about whether their friends are playing, what they like or dislike about the sport and how much time playing will take away from other activities they want or have to do (e.g., school work!). I try to keep the conversation positive, non-pressured and geared to what's important to them, not me. If they're interested but still undecided or hesitant, only then do I encourage my sons to try their hand at playing that particular sport.

I think a little nudge from mom or dad is sometimes necessary and helpful. According to Dr. Jim Taylor, the author of Positive Pushing, children don't like discomfort. With any new activity outside their comfort zone, they'll often put forward effort until it gets difficult or challenging. Then they'll look to others, often parents, to see whether they've done enough and can quit. While Dr. Taylor acknowledges that if children are pushed too hard, they may rebel and fail to achieve, he also says that if parents don't push enough, kids may become self-satisfied and unmotivated.

That's been my experience. I have a suspicion that if my sons aren't pushed to try new things now and then, they might instead spend their entire day playing video games. Moreover, if my kids decide they want to try a sport, I insist they commit to finishing the entire season. If they want to give the sport up after the season is over, that's OK. But I don't want them to get in the habit of quitting on their teammates in mid-season or giving up when the activity becomes more strenuous or demanding.

Besides, the benefits of playing sports are immense. Team sports promote confidence, camaraderie, and a healthy and active lifestyle. Studies show that kids who play sports are less likely to become obese, abuse drugs or alcohol or to perform poorly in school. Learning to compete prepares a child for the demands of teenage and adult life, including the ability to cope with both success and failure.

Every child is different, but if you agree that a gentle paternal nudge helps from time to time, consider these strategies to reduce your child's anxiety about playing team sports for the first time:

• Get your kids used to the idea of playing an organized sport and being part of a team. Let them watch a game or a practice. Take them to the ball field a week or so before their own practice begins and walk with them around the field. Or let them wear their uniform or sports shoes around the house so they'll get excited about being a team player.

• Consider a little instruction before the season to help your child get up to speed. I strongly recommend that this coaching not come from mom or dad, but from another adult, preferably a coach. Kids will listen more intently to, and try harder for, just about anyone other than a parent. Many leagues offer off-season clinics at little or no cost to families. Another option is try a one-on-one lesson, or better yet, a group lesson with a small circle of friends, to give your kids a confidence boost in their playing skills.

• Keep the pressure off your child by never coaching from the sidelines. I'm always tempted to shout out a few tips to my sons because, after all, don't I know my boys best and how to help them? Fight this well-intentioned but misguided impulse. There can only be one coach on a team, and yelling out conflicting or distracting instructions from the sidelines will only heap more stress and confusion on your child.

• To give you and your child peace of mind, ask about the safety procedures the league follows. A child's developing reflexes, coordination and reaction time might not make them ready for advanced play. Enrollment in leagues is mostly age-based, but you still may have options between, for example, having your child play T-ball rather than machine or coach-pitched baseball. Using the right equipment is also essential. In baseball, for instance, does your league use or require soft-strike baseballs, mouth guards, non-composite bats and helmets for pitchers as well as for hitters and catchers?

• Finally, do your part in making sports a positive, fun experience for your children. Rather than critiquing their performance after each game, ask them what they thought about the event and how they did. Focus on how hard they tried rather than specific results. And, of course, show up for games whenever you can, understand their challenges, and celebrate their improvements and triumphs, win or lose.

Hopefully, if you consider these strategies, both you and your kids will be ready this spring to PLAY BALL!

John McCormick and his sons William and Connor are the authors of "Dad, Tell Me A Story," How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children (Nicasio Press 2010). For more information about family storytelling, visit the authors' website and blog at http://DadTellMeAStory.com.

You can also follow the authors on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DadTellMeAStory, or join them on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/DadTellMeAStory.