"Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." Proverbs 22:6 does not specifically mention sports and physical activity, but it does apply to our attitudes and practices in all things, including these topics. Since sports are such a significant part of so many families' lives, healthy attitudes towards athletics and their appropriate prioritization should be ingrained early by wise parents and coaches who model healthy choices.
For young children, the benefits of participation in athletics, competitive or noncompetitive, is well documented and include improved physical fitness, development of motor skills, self-discipline, and development of social and leadership skills. Moreover, sports give children valuable opportunities to learn teamwork. A healthy approach to athletics by parents and coaches does much to produce healthy adults and a balanced lifestyle. The major goal of sports, though, should be enjoyable participation. That requires paying attention to the physical and emotional wellbeing of youngsters involved in sports.
Considering Physical Safety
For some parents, selecting the right sports gear or learning proper form and technique may be the first things that come to mind with respect to keeping their young athletes safe, but there's certainly more to it.
Physical development needs to be considered. Children aren't simply small adults. Because they are still developing, young athletes are at greater risk for injury than grown-ups. Their bones, ligaments, and tendons are still growing, making them more susceptible to injury. Parents should bear these factors in mind not only when helping a child select a sport, but when talking about the type and intensity of training as well as the overall amount of time dedicated to a sport.
In addition, children of the same age can vary greatly in size and physical maturity. This should be taken into account when parents of smaller children are considering which sports leagues and league levels to allow their kids to sign up for, as mismatches in size, weight and strength can increase the risk of injury.
Single-Sport Commitment: Not Best for Younger Players
Some parents and coaches are big proponents of focusing a child's play and training on one particular sport. They argue that if their child is to get ahead on the field or the court, he needs to dedicate himself to only that sport.
That approach may work well for very high level athletics, but concentrating on just one sport and training year-round for it at an early age is not a great idea. For younger children especially it can cause overuse injuries like little leaguers elbow, Achilles tendinitis, shin splints, and shoulder injuries. These occur gradually over time when an activity is repeated over and over and strained parts of the body do not have enough time to heal between play or practice. These injuries can impair growth, lead to increased risk of fractures, and may result in long-term health problems.
Single sport play throughout the year can create excessive stress on specific body parts not ready for this type of intensity. On the other hand, a well balanced approach to participation in a variety of sports helps prevent the consequences of overdoing a particular sport.
In addition to physical consequences, participating in, and concentrating relentlessly on, a single sport (or even a variety of sports) all year long or can result in burnout. This can suck all the joy out of athletics, but it can be prevented by limiting a child's involvement to a more appropriate level and intensity.
Consider very carefully whether to allow your child to play one sport year round. Taking regular breaks and playing other sports is valuable to skill development and injury prevention. Young children need exposure to a variety of sports in order to develop coordination and strength and have the opportunities to discover their gifts and talents.
It may be appropriate for your child at some stage to focus on one sport (typically during the later high school years). In that case, and if your child has the abilities and motivation to do it, encourage her to devote the time and energy to perform well and go for that college scholarship or chance to be an Olympic competitor. Most children, however, won't perform at that level. For the vast majority of kids, a healthy, well-rounded approach to sports is best for both child and family.
Other Ways to Reduce Risks
As mentioned earlier, proper use of the right gear, learning proper technique, and avoiding year-long, intense devotion to a single sport are good ways to reduce the risk of injury. Other effective ways to prevent injuries include age-specific coaching and appropriate physical conditioning. Again, skeletally immature bodies need variety and appropriate levels of activity to mature without damaging developing muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones.
Time away from a sport or sports may also be valuable, depending on the situation. Taking a break from sports should not be considered as punishment, but can be a healthy component of a sports program. Limit the number of teams in which your child is playing in one season. Kids who play on more than one team are especially at risk for overuse injuries.
In addition, healthy attitudes by parents and coaches can prevent physical and emotional injuries by creating an atmosphere of healthy competition that emphasizes confidence, cooperation, and a positive self-image, rather than just winning.
Competition Can Be Good; Winning at All Costs, Not So Much
Children's sports should always be fun. Coaches and parents are responsible for creating an atmosphere that promotes enjoyment as well as teamwork and sportsmanship. They should also nurture healthy attitudes toward competition. Young athletes must learn to deal with defeat as well as success in order to place events in a proper perspective. Failure to mature in this area can have both short-term and long-term detrimental effects on impressionable young athletes.
That said, the "win at all costs" attitude that is prevalent in high level athletics (primarily college and professional) and which is fostered by many parents and coaches has no place in youth sports, especially among younger children. Not only does it drain the fun out sports and make many children miserable, but it can lead to injuries. A young athlete striving to meet the unrealistic expectations of others may ignore warning signs of injury and continue to play with pain.
Additionally, recognition of sport injuries by parents and coaches can be made more difficult by children who ignore the injury and refuse to make adults aware of their symptoms. Their fear of being placed on the sidelines while friends continue to participate can make them hesitant to report their symptoms allowing injuries to go untreated and worsen.
Consider Your Family's Needs and Priorities
Choices regarding the amount and level of a child's participation in organized sports can have both positive and negative consequences. Participation in sports requires time, practice, travel, and money to fund the activity. Hours spent running here and there for practices and games, as well as the additional amount of time required for travel leagues, can crowd out other priorities.
Does participation in sports keep your child from church, youth group, or taking time to worship with other believers? Does it prevent your family from spending quality time together? Does it make family meal times an impossibility? An inordinate amount of time devoted to sports can exact a toll—emotional, financial, physical, relational and spiritual—that may be too high for your family.
God wants us to have a full life and to live it abundantly. But a full and abundant life isn't one that has no margin. If a family isn't careful it can easily become overwhelmed by the demands of a child's athletic schedule. Prayerful consideration regarding the amount and level of participation in athletics for children is prudent and necessary to maintain a family life that is physically, spiritually and emotionally balanced.