The Secret to Keeping Kids in Sports

Your kid begged you to join the team so why is she suddenly burning out? Learn what you can do to keep the thrill of playing alive.
By Shaun Dreisbach
Apr 13, 2015

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Apr 13, 2015

Every mom wants to encourage her kid’s interests — it’s in her parental DNA. So when Tammy Carroll’s then-8-year-old, Savannah, developed an obsession with gymnastics, the Essex, VT, mom enrolled her in twice-a-week lessons at a gymnastics academy.

At first, Savannah loved it. When she wasn’t in class, she was cartwheeling and doing handstands at home. But after months of being pressured by her coaches to strive for perfection, Savannah began to burn out. “There was a real push for her to gain certain skills. It felt like work to her,” recalls Carroll. To make gymnastics enjoyable again, she moved her daughter to a different class and switched coaches. “But finally, Savannah said, ‘I’m done with this.’ And she quit,” Carroll says.

Similar stories play out every day across the United States. Of the 60 million kids involved in organized sports, an estimated 70 percent drop out by age 13. That’s a serious bummer considering the proven perks of athletics: They keep kids healthy, boost brain power, lower the obesity risk, build confidence, and teach key lessons.

Why the enormous attrition rate? According to a new study in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health, the main reason kids give is that it just isn’t fun anymore. To discover how parents and coaches can keep more children engaged in organized sports, the researchers identified what makes athletics satisfying. One big surprise: It’s the process that kids value most, not the outcome.

In fact, out of the 81 things kids identified as “fun” about sports, winning ranked at number 48. “Kids get so much more out of playing sports than the final score,” says study author Amanda J. Visek, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University.

Curious to find out which factors actually do matter when it comes to making organized sports meaningful for kids — and how to keep your child happy? Read on!

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Reason #1: Kids Love Their Teammates
In Dr. Visek’s study, children ranked good sportsmanship (playing well together, showing appreciation for one another) as the crucial ingredient in making sports fun. “Cooperation is what underlies the concept. The idea of working as a unit — and feeling like they’re part of something bigger — is what kids prize above all other things,” says Dr. Visek. To foster the feelings further:

Emphasize Being a Good Teammate
“Before you sign your child up to play, explain that there will be times he doesn’t feel like going to practice or a game, but that belonging to a team means he has a lot of other people counting on him, and he needs to honor that commitment,” says David Benzel of Growing Champions for Life, a nonproft aimed at keeping kids engaged in sports. It shows your child that you value sportsmanship.

Model Fair Play
On the sidelines, go out of your way to praise a good call or move, even if it was against your kid’s team — and zip it when things aren’t going well.

Teach Lessons About Character
Point out the good and bad behavior you witness while watching a game: “Hey, did you see those two guys from opposite teams joking with each other? Great sportsmanship!” Or “That player just lost it — not cool to fight, no matter how mad you are.”

Praise Your Kid When He’s a Good Sport
This one may seem obvious but it can’t be underlined enough, given how important this aspect of playing is. Notice him helping up an opponent that he knocked down? Or catch him consoling a teammate who almost scored? Mention how awesome it was, and why.

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Reason #2 They Really Like Trying Hard
Kids enjoy the challenge of playing their hearts out and doing their best. “It’s so rewarding to try, try, try and finally see the payoff in terms of personal development and fulfillment,” says Benzel. Some ways to capitalize on that: give her an E for effort “If you tell your child, ‘Wow, you’re really good at dribbling the ball,’ it gives her the impression that she’s naturally talented, and provides less incentive to work hard to improve,” notes David Jacobson of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a group aimed at improving the athletic experience for kids. Instead, praise the effort (“I can see you’ve been practicing a lot!”). That way, she’s got more of a reason to strive to get better.

Keep Competition In Check
“If your kid gets too wrapped up in wanting to win, explain that she has to respect how hard the team worked,” says Benzel. That means no booing the other team or blowing up at a fellow player who missed the ball. If you catch her throwing shade, call her out. Then redouble your attempts to praise how focused she was during the game to defect attention away from the final score. That may curb her competitive streak, too.

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Reason #3 Great Coaches Inspire Them
Good coaches treat kids with respect. “A great coach also recognizes the value of making mistakes and allows a kid to mess up without calling him out in public,” says Benzel. While it might seem a little out of your hands, there are ways you can make an impact here — even if you’re not a big fan of the coach.

Pay the Coach Compliments
Let him know that you loved the way he handled a bad call or share the fact that your child enjoys practice. “Parents are good at complaining about what the coach does wrong and often don’t give positive feedback,” Dr. Visek explains. “But if you praise him, he’s more apt to remember the compliment and try to do it again.”

Let the Coach Be the Coach
“It’s so tempting, but do not yell instructions during a game,” says Jacobson. For starters, you’re undermining the coach’s authority. Plus, it zaps the fun out of it for your child. “He’s hearing enough voices — between his teammates, coach, and inner critic — without having you weigh in,” says Jacobson. Benzel agrees: “We tend to critique our kids’ performances. It’s done with the best of intentions, but that kind of judgment plays into one of their greatest fears: I might disappoint Mom and Dad. So when you say, ‘Next time try … ’ what follows has a different feel than if he’d heard it from his coach.” However, yelling encouragement is totally fine.

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Reason #4 Improving Pumps Them Up
Kids actually enjoy learning from their mistakes. “When you’re presented with a challenge and try a new skill you’ve learned, it’s gratifying and makes you exert more effort to improve,” explains Dr. Visek. And while it might seem scary to flub things in front of a crowd, the support the coach and teammates offer (“Next time!”) can ameliorate a kid’s embarrassment. To emphasize the power of progress:

Ask: “what was fun about practice today?” Followed up with, “Did you pick up anything new?” (Unlike the usual, “Did you play well?”) The first two questions highlight the learning aspects of sports. Otherwise, you send the message that winning is paramount, Dr. Visek says.

Encourage Your Child to Set Goals
Talk through her aims and praise her whenever she makes progress toward them, not just when she nails them. It shows that you value the process more than the outcome.

Help Kids Learn From Their Mistakes
Remind your kid that even pro athletes are constantly trying to up their game, says Jacobson. So if she’s crushed because she struck out, suggest she ask the coach for pointers — or offer to practice with her.

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Reason #5 They Like Seeing You in the Stands
This is the aspect of sports where you can make the biggest impact. Your opinion matters, so every approving word or gesture from you buoys his enjoyment of the game, says Jacobson. That also means when your kid blows a play, he doesn’t need you to harp on it.

Watch Your Physical Reaction
“Parents may not realize it, but they let their body language reflect their displeasure when their kid messes up and looks over at them. It’s the eye roll or the slumped shoulders,” says Jacobson. Message received loud and clear: You let me down. (So not fun.) Because it can be hard to control these reactions, Jacobson suggests coming up with a signal that lets your kid know an error is no biggie. Pretend to flick sweat off your brow — as in, “Hey, no huge deal! Just focus on the next play.”

Be Quiet On the Car Ride Home
“Parents often treat the trip as a teachable moment — and it’s not,” says Benzel. “Right after a game, kids are more emotional than rational, so any comments you make, even positive ones, will feel like judgments.” The best thing to say is: “I really enjoyed watching you play.” That’s it. (Okay, you can ask if your child is thirsty.) Wait until your kid is ready to talk, and then you can delve in and ask questions.

Don’t Overcelebrate a Victory
A big hug and some ice cream? Great! But don’t go on and on about the tally. “It only makes the losses harder because the pendulum has so far to swing. Plus, it ties your kid’s self-esteem to winning,” says Benzel.

Let Your Kid Be Disappointed By Defeat
Acknowledge that it feels crummy to lose, but (as with winning) don’t make a big deal out of it. No matter how upset your child is, it will pass. “When kids describe the most fun game they’ve ever had, they often pick one that they actually lost. What made it so amazing was that they and the team played really well,” says Dr. Visek. Adds Benzel: “It’s about figuring out what the lesson is — and what a kid can learn from it to help the whole team improve. That’s the heart of what sports is.”

Photo Credit: Aaron Dyer

Gross Motor Skills
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