Before my daughter entered first grade, all her friends started signing up for soccer.
She didn’t have a clear idea what soccer entailed, having never touched a soccer ball or watched a game, but I asked her if she wanted to join a team.
“Sure,” she said, looking up briefly from her book.
Maybe she’ll really like it, I thought as I paid the registration fee. A health and fitness writer, I know the benefits of team sports for kids, especially as they move through middle and high school. Team sports help kids have less social anxiety, while leading to lower dropout rates, enhanced school performance, improved social behavior, and reduced problem behaviors.
A recent study even found that participating in team sports can help kids ward off depression. Team sports are good for kids’ physical and mental health, they build self esteem and confidence, and often help kids find friends for life. Parents benefit too. Standing on the sidelines every Saturday is a wonderful way for parents to make friends and find a community.
So, you can understand why I had high hopes for my kids enjoying team sports. Unfortunately, this was never the case.
My daughter enjoyed being on a soccer team with her friends and suiting up for games, but she disliked two key components of the sport: running and having any contact with the ball. She tried being the goalie to avoid running, but instead spent the game terrified the ball would come rocketing her way. She kept at it for a few years until all her friends either quit or graduated to more competitive teams. After soccer she joined the swim team. She was happy to swim laps for an hour and a half twice a week, but had no interest in meets. It was great exercise, but didn’t captivate her imagination — she continued mostly because of our requirement that she have some sort of physical activity during the week.
Soccer reentered our lives when our son started first grade. He ran around enthusiastically at practice, but on game day lost all motivation, drifting around the field like a lost tourist. His coach, certain there was a dedicated soccer player somewhere inside, promised my son one M&M each time his foot touched the ball. The bribe worked, but as I forked over overflowing handfuls of M&Ms after each game I wondered why the other kids didn’t need sugary incentives to participate.
We hung up my son’s soccer cleats after one season when he expressed an interest in baseball. He loved the uniforms and was fascinated by the catcher’s gear, but couldn’t break his habit of slowing down as he approached first base. Parents, coaches, and teammates would scream “Run!” after he hit the ball, but he never changed his pace from a slow, stately jog. “I know he can run fast. I’ve seen him do it!” a coach said to me during one game.
If you have a kid who doesn’t enjoy the sports the rest of the kids love, don’t give up on physical activity entirely. Pay attention to their interests and the type of environment they like. An introvert might enjoy hiking, an anxious child could find peace with yoga.
One of the best things you can do is to be an example of physical activity and movement yourself. In the same way that if you want to raise a reader, your kids should see you reading for pleasure, if you want your kids to be active, they should see you enjoying movement.
Neither my husband nor I were any good at team sports as kids, but as adults we’ve both pursued martial arts, surfing, and CrossFit. We don’t follow any professional sports (something that could have contributed to our kids’ disinterest in traditional team sports, come to think of it), but movement and fitness are topics of conversation around the house, and we made it clear to our kids we expected them to move their bodies in some way.
After we gave up on traditional sports, my son and daughter began trying different activities. Right around the time my daughter left the swim team she started dancing. Now a high schooler, she takes ballet, contemporary, and jazz dance classes. She spends six hours a week at her dance studio, practicing until her feet ache.
After he gave up baseball, my son discovered Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The boy who needed to be bribed with M&Ms now pushes himself to exhaustion on the mat, ending each hour-long practice red-faced, sweaty-headed, and grinning.
Both kids practice happily and even compete in their respective pursuits. It turns out it wasn’t physical activity or even discomfort they disliked, it was just team sports.
I don’t regret having the kids try soccer and baseball, but I do wish we’d let them give up earlier and offered a wider array of choices at a younger age. But I’m happy we modeled an active lifestyle and kept the door open for them to try new things.
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