For young children, the goal of sports is to have fun

Child Life

March 24, 1996|By Beverly Mills | Beverly Mills,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My 7-year-old has just started playing softball. Some of the parents take this very seriously and are extremely competitive. So far, my son seems to be having fun, but I'd like to know more about the guidelines for healthy participation in team sports at this age. How do you know as a parent when you're pushing too much vs. not having high enough expectations for performance?

Carla Murray

Atlanta

Presence and support are the two keys, says Vincent Fortanasce, author of "Life Lessons From Little League" (Doubleday, $9.99, $13.95 Canada). At age 7, the child's sports ability isn't what matters.

In researching for his book, Dr. Fortanasce asked people what stood out in their minds about their youth sports experiences.

"The one thing they remembered was whether Mom and Dad were on the sidelines," says Dr. Fortanasce, a psychiatrist and neurologist in Pasadena, Calif. "If there's one thing that will make a child feel worthless, it's let the parents not be there."

But if parents push, a 7-year-old may feel negative pressure. Until a child is between 11 and 12, competition should be downplayed, and the major emphasis should be enjoyment.

"Children play sports to have fun," says Chris Rohl, a father from San Antonio, Texas. "If it's not fun, they'll lose interest and stop playing. That's how you'll know something's wrong."

Things will most likely go wrong when a parent takes the game too seriously. "There are always a couple of parents that will scream or yell at their child," says Nancy Brown, a reader from Fredericksburg, Va. "You should just show your child you are there for him, back him up and encourage him. It's how they play the game, not whether they win or lose."

And at 7 years old, most children will not play well no matter what you do, says Aynsley Smith, a sports psychology counselor at the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center in Rochester, Minn.

"Softball is a pretty tough sport for a 7-year-old," Dr. Smith says. "They still have difficulty tracking the speed and direction of a moving object."

A child who doesn't perform well is probably trying as hard as he can, and that's what's important, Dr. Fortanasce says.

"Adults judge success based on results, but a successful child is one who tries and tries again, even if he repeatedly strikes out," he says. "A failure is a child who doesn't want to try again."

Disapproval from a parent, no matter how subtle, is the quickest way to kill the child's determination. Even in the face of a dropped ball, what the child needs to hear, Dr. Fortanasce says, are things like: "Good try. You'll get it the next time."

It's a good idea for parents to help the child practice sports skills, provided they go about it in a positive way, says Dr. Smith.

"Set small goals that are achievable," she says. "Do a test first to see what the child can do. If he can catch five balls out of 10, go for six. Be sure you're both having fun."

Can you help?

Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 the Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608. School motivation: "My husband and I have been trying to instill in our son the motivation to study in school and do well," says K. Daniels of Buffalo, N.Y. "He sees no need for formal education and has always hated school. We would appreciate any help in this matter."

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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