How To Make Sports Fun And Prevent Early Burnout

Written by

Jessica Williams

9:30 am
10/03/16

Photo Courtesy of Plae

Sports. They can teach our kids teamwork and sportsmanship, determination and humility. They can provide an outlet for healthy risk-taking and for overcoming challenges. And while we know the benefits of physical activity are wide-reaching, incredibly, 70-percent of children drop out of organized athletics by age 13. A big reason? They’re just not fun anymore.

But now, more than ever, organized sports need to be made enjoyable for kids so that they stick with them and reap the rewards. “Right now, we’re cutting physical education, we’re cutting recess time for kids, kids don’t go outside and play in the park anymore,” says John O’Sullivan, a former collegiate and professional soccer player, coach, and author of Changing the Game: The Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids, and founder of the Changing the Game Project. “It’s important that organized sports are positive experiences and that kids want to continue in them because we know that children who are active at 10, 11, 12 years old are far more likely to be active throughout their life, they do better in school, they are less likely to do drugs, and they’re more likely to go to college.”

Organized sports also help kids develop physical literacy, or the ability to move with competence and confidence and the desire to be physically active for life, which is crucial for lifetime health and wellness. “Just like reading and math, if a kid struggles with his ABC’s, we’d intervene. If he struggles with math, we’d intervene,” says O’Sullivan. “We see kids struggling with fundamental movement—how to run, jump, throw, catch—and we say, ‘Ah, she’s just not an athlete.’ Yet research shows that physical literacy is just as crucial for lifetime health and wellness as all those other literacies. So, if you’re not the type of parent who goes out in the yard, takes your kid to the playground, lets them run, jump, swing, throw the ball, catch the ball, then you should probably try to get them in some sort of organized sports.”

O’Sullivan recommends the following simple tips in order to prevent sports burnout at an early age, keep things fun, and reinstate the “play” in “play ball.”

Encourage Multiple Sports And Delay Specialization:
Like it or not, youth sports have changed dramatically over the past 40 years. They have become, more than ever, adult-led, structured, organized activities that have replaced free play and pick-up games at the park. One result of this adult-led culture is that children are specializing in a single sport at a younger age and are playing that one sport year-round, often on multiple teams. The number of kids specializing in a single sport at an earlier age appears to have increased overall as select or travel leagues now start with children as young as 7 years old, according to a report published in Pediatrics last month. But the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children delay any single-sport specialization until at least age 15 or 16 to minimize risks of overuse injury and should instead be encouraged to participate in multiple sports. “Children who play multiple sports, who diversify their play, are more likely to enjoy physical activity throughout their lives and are more successful in achieving their athletic goals,” explains Joel S. Brenner, MD, past chairperson of the AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, in a prepared statement. O’Sullivan agrees, adding, “The research shows pretty clearly that children who specialize prior to age 12 are far more likely to get injured. They are also more likely to burnout and dropout. Every sport is different, but in general, athletes who get to the elite level are usually athletes who play multiple sports and then specialize later, whereas the ones who reach the near-elite level are usually the earlier specializers.”

Focus On Fun, Not Future Scholarships:
Along with single-sport specialization, many of today’s kids are feeling pressure to aim for college scholarships and even professional athletic careers. Yet, eye-opening statistics show those opportunities are incredibly rare. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only about 6% of high school athletes will go on to play in college and about 2% of college athletes will go on to play professionally. Likewise, very few high school athletes earn some form of college athletics scholarships—a remarkable 2%. So, instead of grooming your kids for these elusive milestones, help them see sports as an avenue for fun, as well as a healthy outlet.

Embrace Failure And Keep The Love Flowing:
The way you make sports enjoyable for your kids is twofold, says O’Sullivan. “Number one, make it safe to fail. Help kids understand that when they mess up, when they lose, when they make a mistake, it’s okay and actually it’s a necessary part of learning,” he says. “Number two, just love them. Tell them, ‘I love watching you play.’ Don’t ever let them think that your love for them depends upon sport performance or outcome of games. If you can do that, if you can free them from that burden, if you can make it safe to fail, they are far more likely to have an enjoyable time out there because they don’t think they’re disappointing mom and dad with every mistake or every loss.”

Let Your Kid Drive His/Her Experience:
Your child having ownership over his or her sports experience is also key. “The role of the parent is to help a kid find what he or she is passionate about and not necessarily determine it for them,” says O’Sullivan. Ownership also plays a part in intrinsic motivation, which is important for mini-athletes. When kids pursue something they love, they’ll set the goals, they’ll set the expectations, and they’ll strive to meet those goals. Giving a child an extrinsic reward, such as a dollar for each point scored in a basketball game, is not good for an athlete’s long-term motivation to continue to participate. “In a nutshell,” says O’Sullivan, “let the experience belong to your kids and support them in the things they are passionate about. Without kids experiencing enjoyment, ownership, and intrinsic motivation, it doesn’t matter how fast someone runs or how high they jump, they’re probably going to quit.”

Any tips for keeping sports fun in your family? Please share them in the comments below.

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