Which sport or activity is best for your child?
When it comes to choosing which sport your child will play, it’s a tough call. There are so many options and so many opinions, that making the decision can feel overwhelming. A common approach is to enroll kids in multiple sports at once or pick only one at a young age and direct all of their focus and energy into the single endeavor. But these strategies can both create exhaustion and burnout, an easy way to turn kids off of physical activity.
In reality, there is no single solution as to which sport your son or daughter should play nor a perfect strategy to ensure that they become the best athlete possible. No matter how much effort you put into making the right choice, you’ll find that there are differences in every coach and team and organization you encounter. Not to forget that every kid is different as well and when making any decision it’s important to consider what makes them unique.
While all of this seems like a vague answer to a big question, in my 15+ years of coaching, I have noticed things that (in my opinion) make some sports and activities better than others. Below are some of the things I’ve learned.
Before diving into the specifics of each sport, I want to make clear that team sports and organized activities are far from the only solution to getting kids physical activity. However, while they’re not for everyone, I’m a big believer that it’s at least worth trying as team sports can have loads of benefits including improved physical development, social skills, behavior and discipline.
When choosing activities, it’s important to remember that putting your kids in sports where they aren’t one of the best participants can be a really good thing. Focusing too much on a specific area where you child already excels can actually stunt the learning process or create a fear of failure that can have lasting negative consequences. Finding activities where they have room to grow, provides them with the valuable opportunity to experience improvement.
It’s also important to remember that no matter what your intention or your child’s skill level, all sports and activities should accomplish the following for your child:
-Help them foster a love of physical activity
-Improve their movement- gross and fine motor skills
-Provide them with a positive learning environment
In simpler terms, this means kids are enjoying the activity, they’re safe while doing it, and they have good coaching/instruction- all topics that deserve posts of their own- but for now we’ll discuss a few sports in more detail.
I grew up an active kid and played nearly every team sport available. If there’s on thing I wish I had done more of, it’s gymnastics. Gymnastics, like most sports, has many different levels of training and competitiveness, but at it’s core, I think it’s the single best athletic activity kids can do.
From a physiological perspective, it teaches body control and awareness, helps develop muscle and fine tunes an array of motor skills. From a behavioral standpoint, it teaches discipline, preparation and focus, among other things. In the proper setting, especially at younger ages, the goal is self improvement over competition against others, one of the the best ways to teach children about personal growth. As kids get older, the dynamic of gymnastics changes significantly, but at a young age, the skills and lessons learned can set a wonderful foundation for any other sport, not to mention other areas of life.
Martial arts is fantastic choice for reasons similar to gymnastics, as it focus on body control and awareness and improves movement quality.
Just like gymnastics, and often times more so, marital arts teaches children important life lessons as well- discipline, commitment and most importantly, control. The systematic method of teaching, going from belt to belt, gives kids a tangible framework for measuring their progress and personal growth. While many kids abandon marital arts for team sports or other activities, again like gymnastics, it creates a fantastic starting point for whatever direction they go.
Track and Field
Running is one of the most fundamental movements involved in every sport, but every time I work with a new group of kids, the majority of them have very poor running technique.
Track and field is another great choice to help build base skills, even if your child decides down the line they’re not excited about competitive running. Good coaching in track teaches good mechanics and technique which translate into almost every other sport.
I’m a bit biased when it comes to soccer as it’s my favorite sport to play and watch and coach. I’m still active in the soccer community, mostly because I love it, but also because I really believe soccer is a fantastic team sport for kids.
One of the most important components of every sport is footwork and soccer is a fantastic way to develop it. It’s also a sport that requires nearly constant and varied movements- short sprints, change of direction, endurance, jumping. When kids learn to dribble, pass and shoot with the ball it is a great skill, but the way their bodies and movements develop just by playing the game are even more valuable.
Soccer is also great sport for kids because of how much teamwork it requires. At younger ages, teams are smaller- sometimes as few as five players at a time- but finding success means figuring out communication and coordination with peers. Again, a skill that translates to other sports as well as many other areas of life.
I grew up playing baseball and love it for many different reasons, but when it’s not my favorite choice when it comes to sports for kids.
Baseball does have its upsides. It teaches hand eye coordination, discipline and proper throwing technique among other things. But it has its shortfalls as well.
For the most part, at every level, baseball involves a lot of standing around. Even in practice, activities only involve the movement of a few individuals at a time, leaving everyone else watching or waiting. Patience is a virtue, but at a time when most kids don’t get enough physical activity as is, it’s wasteful to spend their active time standing in lines or watching others play.
If baseball is something your child loves, then by all means, it’s a great choice. But especially at younger ages when kids are exploring different activities, I think it’s best to build fundamental movement skills in other sports first, and then sign up for baseball if it’s appealing to your child.
I like football. It’s fun to play and fun to watch. I’m a fan. But I don’t think it’s a good sport for kids.
My feelings about flag football are similar to those about baseball, but when it comes to tackle, I think it’s a bad idea. This is another topic I could write about for days, but the most simple reason is that kids can learn the same skills in other sports without putting their underdeveloped bodies at an increased risk for injury.
Even if you’re the biggest football fan in the world and your child is insistent on playing, why not wait until at least high school to begin tackle football? Football is a game that can be learned at a later age while fine tuning the most important fundamentals in other areas. Footwork, balance, running, body awareness, jumping and every other movement involved in football can be developed through other sports.
Over the last several years a lot of media attention has been given to the dangers of football, especially due to the frequency of concussions. While almost any sport or activity puts kids at some risk, at an early age it’s best to find sports where the opportunity for growth far outweighs the chance of injury.
There are obviously many more options than the six activities and sports for kids discussed in this piece, but when you examine them together, there are patterns. Finding sports that help develop body control and awareness, variety of movement, and motor skills often translate well into other activities later in life. While there is no right answer when addressing the question of what sport your child should play, there are good ways to approach the process of how you choose. Just as you would with any other decision having to do with your child, it’s important to consider the physical, emotional, and social benefits of each option. Beyond that, whatever you decide, just enjoy watching your child as they learn and grow while being physically active.
Steve Ettinger is a kids and family fitness expert, school speaker, and author of Wallie Exercises. Learn more at www.SteveEttinger.com
I'm a registered dietitian, mom of 4, avid lover of food and strong promoter of healthy habits. Here you will find lots of delicious recipes full of fruits and veggies, tips for getting your kids to eat better and become intuitive eaters and lots of resources for feeding your family.Learn More about Natalie