How sweet it is when you show up to your toddler’s first soccer game! You watch him chase the ball, pick some dandelions and off he goes. Cute, isn’t it? Flash forward five years and sports are a bit more momentous. One question parents should ask themselves is, is our family ready for the work that lies up ahead?
Brian Grawe, M.D., a specialist in sports medicine at UC Health, says it’s important to analyze the “why,” and decide if it’s a commitment both you and your child are prepared for. Of course you have plenty of time now to give it a whirl in your backyard and think ahead to the future.
“All kids are going to be different,” says Grawe. “The parent and the child need to be mentally prepared for the fact that the competition produces winners and losers. Ultimately, you need to make sure that your child is mature enough to handle the highs\ that can be associated with winning, and some of the lows that can be associated with losing,” he adds.
Often, parents worry about whether their child is physically ready for a competitive sport, whereas the mental aspect is just as important, if not more. According to Grawe, although injuries do happen, they don’t happen as often as you think. Parents and their strong little athletes should really focus on mental preparedness and what it means to be part of a team.
“That [mental preparedness] is going to be more important regarding whether or not they are going to have not only success, but fun while playing a sport,” Grawe says.
Fun. That is the key word. Kids need to be kids and have fun in whatever it is they decide they want to do. Part of a parent’s job — among a million other responsibilities — is to alleviate pressure off the child while not telling them they MUST play a specific sport, or they MUST do well. Helping your child relax will help them to succeed.
Taking extra proper precautions before sending your little competitor out to the field to play is smart. Here are some key ingredients to making sure your kid is sports-ready before he goes (Grawe says these measures can help prevent burnout and acute injuries).
• Sign up for Multiple Sports — Steer away from “sports specific specialization” and allow your child to use other muscles, reducing wear and tear. They are still developing!
• Include Free Play — Kids are kids! Life and activities can’t be serious all the time. When there are no goals to be achieved and the stress of winning or losing is out of the picture, kids can relax, take a break and just have fun! It’s recommended that kids have at least 20 minutes of free activity time, three times per week.
• Dynamic Warm Ups & Warm Downs — More effective than touching your toes and counting to 10, dynamic stretches do a little more than that. They help children to ease into the sport they are about to play. For example, a cross country runner might do some light jogging in place, or a football player might do some football shuffles side to-side. According to Grawe, a recent study found that the kids who play over three hours of video games per day, have an increased risk of getting injured when they play sports.
“It [the study] supports the fact that your kids need to be having free play; video games can decrease your peripheral vision reaction time, and ultimately decrease your joint mobility if you’re on the controller all the time,” Grawe warns.
The more kids move, they less likely they are to get an injury or concussion. (Read more about kids and concussions here).
IMPORTANCE OF PHYSICALS
Depending on the school and the sport, it’s not always required to get a sports physical. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that every child get a regular physical.
“There are things that we know of that we can test for on physical exams, and things we can do to both minimize your risk associated with heart problems with athletic participation,” says Grawe. “With asthma problems, but also with knee injuries, ankle injuries, shoulder injuries — those are the big things we look at,” he continues.
All in all, it’s best to identify a problem before it even starts. So taking the right precautions can prevent injury and ease parents’ minds.
Some hospitals, such as UC Health, offer free physicals at schools in the local area to ensure kids are healthy and to prevent issues before they even start. If your child’s school doesn’t offer physicals, check in with your family physician or pediatrician to make an appointment for a physical.
Generally, physicals check for any family history, your heart, breathing problems, baseline concussion testing and anything that would prevent a child from playing a sport.
LET KIDS BE KIDS
No matter what sport your child chooses to play, it’s about having fun and growing their personalities and relationships. Sometimes parents with the best intentions make the mistake of signing their child up for too many sports thinking it’s good for them. More isn’t always better, and we should all sit back and be realistic on what will and will not work out for the child and the family.
“Just remember, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team,” Grawe says. “As a result, you don’t need to put too much pressure on one single season, for one single sport, at one period of time. A natural, organic development typically is going to help alleviate the pressure in youth sports.”
Kids can get stressed in the situation and find themselves trying to please their family rather than finding pure enjoyment out of the sport. The enjoyment part of it is more important to a child’s skill development and health rather than the sport itself.
Are You Doing Too Much? Signing up for too many sports in one season can cause stress and be physically hard on your child.
Are they Old Enough? In general, sports for ages 8 and younger should be about fun, getting active and learning new skills. Over 8 years old is really when they begin to compete and learn to grasp the idea of winning and losing.
What Do They Want to Do? Your little sport who was once kicking around a soccer ball may be more interested in a one-man sport or activity. Ask them what they want! The answer may surprise you.
Are YOU Ready? Competitive sports are a commitment. Traveling, practices and games on the weekends all come with the package. Be realistic with your family life and commit to what works. Commitment is the key to showing your child you are fully supportive and ready to be there along their new journey.