Between the ages of seven and twelve, most kids want games that have tactics and strategies. During the elementary school years, depending on the curriculum and the facilities available, your child may have the opportunity to try a variety of sports -- indoor and out, summer and winter, unstructured and organized, recreational and competitive.
Swimming, soccer, baseball, and hockey are four of the most popular organized sports at this age. A couple of million Canadian kids head to arenas, to pools, or to playing fields every week to have fun, learn new skills and teamwork, and get their exercise.
Kids love the excitement of sports and the sense of personal accomplishment that comes with their participation on the team. They also enjoy the social aspect. If all the eight-year-olds in your neighbourhood are starting soccer in the spring, your eight-year-old may want to go with them. Lots of children who may have difficulties in other parts of their lives, at school or with friends, build confidence and gain self-esteem on the ice, on the soccer field, or on the baseball diamond.
Your role in learning sports
As a parent, you walk a fine line in guiding your child to the right sports for him. If your child is interested in trying a particular sport, by all means sign him up. But before you do, investigate the league and its coaching style to be sure you're comfortable with the approach. There is an ongoing debate about how appropriate organized competitive sports are for this age group.
Kids between seven and twelve need, more than anything, to have opportunities for broad-based skill development. Heavy practice and game schedules and serious competition can be stressful for your child and require specialization at too early an age. Also, a competitive environment may emphasize applying skills instead of acquiring or improving them. Specializing in one sport during the prepubescent years is inappropriate for the majority of kids. There's little guarantee that a hockey player who's great at the age of ten will still be great at fifteen or sixteen. And specialization can put too much stress on young bodies. Early burnout is not uncommon.
Early developers and late developers
Take into account the stage of development your child has reached. Competition will favour early developers at this age for the simple reason that they are bigger, taller, and better coordinated physically than later-maturing kids. Your early-developing ten-year-old daughter may be stronger and faster than her late-developing twelve-year-old brother. This is initially tough on late developers, who tend to occupy the bench while the early developers fill the team's starting positions. But this experience can skew both kids' attitudes over time. The late developers may not have the chance to acquire skills or confidence, even though they have the same potential to enjoy sports as a teen or adult. The early developers, after a burst of success, may lose confidence in their teens when they're no longer automatically a star on the team.
As a parent, you need to explain to your child that her sports experiences at this age are not necessarily an indicator of her sports experiences a few years later. And as a parent, you need to remember the same thing. Don't get too caught up in your child's early successes or show disappointment at a less than stellar performance, except to support your child's reactions. Keep looking for ways to involve your child in an active lifestyle that emphasizes many activities -- whether she is the current star of the baseball team or still practising catching the ball. Let your child set the pace.
Before allowing your child to commit to a team sport, calculate the financial cost and the cost in time to the child and the rest of the family. Talk to other parents about their experiences and where to find up-to-standard secondhand equipment before you sign on the dotted line.
Is the coach right for your child?
The coaches for the teams that interest your child should be focused on the fun of the game and on encouraging each team member to build his or her skills. Spend time watching the coach in action both at a practice and at a game to assess whether you're comfortable with his coaching style. Talk with him about what he values for his team members. Is he focused primarily on winning? Ask how he deals with children's different skill levels. Try also to talk with the parents of the other kids to find out what their contributions are to the team. If you let your child try out for and join the team, monitor her attitude -- how much she looks forward to participating, whether she wants to arrive at the program on time, and how interested she is in talking with you about her experiences.
The talented athlete
The exceptional kids who show a real talent for a particular sport or activity usually stand out not only in their parents' view but in the more objective view of coaches and sports organizations. Parents should let their talented child decide whether to practise and develop specialized skills in order to participate in organized local or national competitive games and professional sports. But you can help your son or daughter think through the pros and cons of such involvement by researching as much as possible, by discussing it, and by providing your continuing love and support. Both will be necessary throughout the many ups and downs your youngster will experience over the years of practice and training usually required.