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October 26, 2016 - TCO

Getting (and keeping) kids interested in sports

Youth sports are extremely popular in the U.S., with an estimated 27 million kids ages 6-17 participating regularly in team sports every year. That’s roughly 54 percent of all kids in that age range.

This tells us that Americans understand the value in youth sports. And why not? Sports are great for building interpersonal social skills and making friends, teaching and learning life lessons outside the classroom and staying healthy. But if you ask a child why they play, the resounding No. 1 answer always is TO HAVE FUN!

If you’re wondering who to get kids interested in sports, the key to helping them become interested in sports is to focus on having FUN. Providing fun fitness activities for kids to participate in is the best way to encourage children to experience all the great things that sports can provide. The same goes for older kids who may be losing interest in sports.

Below are specific tips and suggestions for getting (and keeping) kids interested in sports, organized by age group:

3- to 8-year-olds

The best thing we can do for kids who are just beginning to learn about sports is celebrate success, even at the youngest of ages. We’re really good at cheering on our kids during the first time they accomplish new things like crawling, walking and talking, and it’s important to keep up that same enthusiasm as they learn the basic fundamentals of new sports.

Nobody wants to keep doing things they’re not good at, so even the most trivial celebration of a good throw while playing catch when combined with a friendly reminder that “it’s OK” to throw it poorly, can be incredibly motivational and powerful to a young child. It builds confidence! Don’t worry if your child is having trouble throwing, swinging, catching, balancing, etc., at this age. Introduce them to the basics, and development will come naturally down the road.

If you want your child to improve, the best thing you can do is participate yourself. Even if you’re not particularly athletic or interested in sports, you have the ability to teach fun. Play along and show that being outside playing games and being active is a great time. Practice hand-eye coordination and alternate between working on fine-motor (small muscle) and gross-motor (large muscle) skills.

Set a schedule to regularly play outside away from home. Parks, playgrounds and big, open fields are distraction-free and feel more special than simply playing in the backyard. Physically active parents have physically active kids, so it’s your opportunity to be a great role model and encourage fun fitness activities for kids.

Finally, let young kids get a little banged up. We never want kids to get seriously hurt, of course, but we should encourage them to be active and play hard. In doing so, minor scrapes, cuts, bruises and soreness are bound to happen. Believe it or not, getting hit by a ball, learning how to fall and bumping into other kids, while not malicious, can actually help build confidence and comfort in playing sports. By facing minor setbacks and experiencing these somewhat painful surprises at a young age, children can learn how to manage their emotions, fight the urges to overreact and control adrenaline rushes.

Safety should ALWAYS be a priority when playing sports, though. Helmets, safety gear and recommended outfits all play critical roles in keeping kids happy and healthy in the long term. If your child does experience an injury, we recommend visiting a nearby Orthopedic Urgent Care clinic, so they receive the best possible care from the beginning.

As kids get older and start playing in more competitive environments, they will benefit greatly from the confidence you instilled in them as young children. Teach fun and live it yourself!

9- to 13-year-olds

Citing research from the early 2000s, roughly 70 percent of kids stop playing organized sports by the time they’re 13 years old, and nearly all of them call it quits by the time they’re 15. Can you guess what causes such a drastic dropout? It’s simple: The sports stop being fun.

Luckily, there are some simple things we can do to make sports more fun for our kids, and it starts by emphasizing play, not pressure. A survey of approximately 8,000 10- to 12-year-olds showed the No. 1 reason kids play (and keep playing) sports is “to have fun.” Way down the list at No. 8 is “to win.” When parents and coaches impose too much pressure to win or are critical and unsupportive when players make mistakes, the game loses its luster.

We realize that leagues and games get more competitive for kids in this age group, and subsequently there are new challenges and situations that kids need to learn to handle. The pain can be incredibly real when kids experience failures and mistakes; it gets worse when they don’t make the “A” team or the elite group. The National Alliance for Youth Sports has a great article for helping young athletes deal with disappointment.

Coaches should be particularly aware of their actions during this time as well. Getting benched for poor performance, or worse — being replaced permanently by better players, can be extremely detrimental to a young athlete. Coaches need to be sensitive to this and realize that most 13-year-olds still have a lot of growing up to do and that players are rapidly developing their skills and abilities. Shared playing time should be critical at this age, because no fifth-grade championship trophy is worth benching kids and killing their enthusiasm for the game they enjoy.

One way to continue to teach fun as kids get older is to introduce them to people who are excellent at the sports they play and who really, really enjoy the game. Watching local high school games can be inspiring because the atmosphere is contagious and players show so much positive emotion. And beyond high school, the Twin Cities are home to several great college and professional athletic teams. Seeing the “best of the best” perform is special — and can be a lifelong memory for a young athlete.

Minnesota is home to 11 professional sports teams, 30 universities and colleges (each with a number of different sports teams), and several amateur leagues and teams scattered throughout the state. Regardless of your budget or location in Minnesota, there are great games for you and your family to enjoy, year-round.

14- to 18-year-olds

In addition to the reasons 9- to 13-year-olds lose interest in sports, kids in this age group are faced with even more unique situations and circumstances, which can lead to them losing interest in a sport they once loved. The pressures of competition are greater, playing time may decrease and common teenage peer pressures are magnified.

Although our society is trying to be better at identifying and stopping bullying in schools, the bullying that occurs during sports sometimes can be dismissed as teammates just joking around, or coaches just being competitive. Yes, adults can
be bullies, too. If you suspect your child is being bullied, please reference the helpful resources at StopBullying.gov. No child deserves to have their love for a game stolen from them on account of someone else’s behavior.

Of course, sometimes quitting is fine, especially if it’s for a good reason like genuine disinterest. We can’t possibly participate in every activity, let alone enjoy them all, so deciding not to play anymore can be completely normal. However, finding a good replacement activity is really important. To clarify, we’re not suggesting kids’ schedules should be jam-packed full of activities around the clock (too many of them already are!). Rather, we just want to make sure that kids identify enough activities that they enjoy so they can remain physically active year-round. If quitting a sport results in a gap in activity, the gap should be filled by a fun replacement.

Individual sports can be great ways to stay active and promote a healthy life well into adulthood. Biking, running, weightlifting, rock climbing, yoga, inline skating, skiing and swimming are just some examples of great activities that boys and girls of all ages can participate in for their whole lives. In 2015, the Travel Channel named Minneapolis-St. Paul as the healthiest metro area in the country — for the third time in a row! We know what we’re doing, people. Let’s keep it up!

At the end of the day, we all want the same thing — happier, healthier lives for our children. At Twin Cities Orthopedics, we believe sports are a gateway to that ultimate goal, and we hope this guide was helpful to you. Please feel free to share with fellow parents, coaches, teachers and friends to continue to encourage fun fitness activities for kids.

Remember there are lots of activities that we can participate in throughout our lives, and enjoying them together makes them more fun. Playing “sports” doesn’t mean just being a varsity athlete; it means being active, enjoying the outdoors and building a foundation for a healthy life.