Putting the Fun Back Into Sport

By Silken Laumann on August 28, 2007
William and Kate are in a terrific swim program twice a week. More accurately, it’s a swim club. My ex and I signed them up because we wanted them to build a strong foundation for other sports they might like to try in the future. The swim club provides such effective coaching that it knocks their two years of swim lessons right out of the water.

At the swim club, they are in the hands of experts who live and breathe the sport. They spend the entire hour swimming. We love the program, but the problem is, next year, my 10-year-old son will be encouraged to swim three or four times a week. That’s four nights a week after school.


Now I am faced with a dilemma. Do I encourage my son to swim two more nights a week or do I stick with two nights a week and have more family time? I want my son to get better and not be left behind by the other kids who are swimming five times a week, but I also want him to have lots of fun, unstructured time with his friends and family. And, I think my son might even have some talent for the sport if he could ever get his arms fully out of the water!

I find myself in the same place as many parents I have talked to over the year since publishing my book Child’s Play. Parents feel pressured to have their kids practise more and more to keep up with all the other kids signed up for the same sport. For some kids, diving that started with two nights a week now consumes five, and hockey that has parents driving to the arena at ungodly hours can consume weekend time. Over and over parents say they love their kids doing sport but resent how much family energy the sport requires. Sometimes this schedule comes from the coach, but it often starts with parents who transfer their own competitive drive to their kids. They believe if their kid likes to swim two nights a week, they will love to swim four nights a week. Parents talk to their kids about goals, commitment and training, when their kids are still just mastering the basics of the
sport and hoping to have a little fun.

I want sport when my kids are ready for it – physically, mentally, socially and developmentally. I want sport that is fun and inclusive, challenging and age-appropriate. I want sport that will capture and hold my child’s interest because it is coached well and seeks to develop my child’s potential as a person, not just an athlete. And I don’t want sport, music, homework or anything else to take over family time in the early years of my
children’s life.

So how can I embrace everything that is so good about sport
without falling victim to what is so bad?

As a four-time Olympian I know intimately the level of passion and commitment to pursue sport at the highest level. The years I trained to be the best in the world were tough, gruelling and an absolute joy. My passion seeped out of every pore, and the only motivation I needed was great coaching, appropriate challenge and lots of encouragement. I also acknowledge that those of us training for the Olympics weren’t well-balanced. We were trying to be better than anybody in the world and as our coach always said, “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.” The thing is, I wasn’t the average kid. I was one in a million whose motivation came immoderately, intensely and without boundaries. I was going to be an Olympian whether we had to practise five times a week or twenty.

But I didn’t start training at this level until I was 17. Before that I lived a regular kid’s active life, walking to school, riding my bike to track practice and exploring the neighbourhood before dinner. Steve Nash played as much soccer and kick-the-can in his early teen years, and it was only at university that he made the commitment to focus fully on basketball.

But why, I wonder, have we built our community sport on such a high performance model? Why is so much of our sport built to develop performance over building character and developing their bodies optimally?

Much of the sport I see children playing is not age-appropriate. I watch five-year-olds play soccer on a one practice to one game ratio, when overwhelming evidence shows us that kids this age are not cognitively ready to follow rules and strategy. This is an age when kids should have far more practices than games and be building ball skills and running skills that help them reach their potential for life. Coaches tell me parents and kids like the games, but it is simply not right for the physical and social development of this age group. When I watch early development sports like dance and gymnastics, I can’t help but wonder if they can just select the ones that are going to be world beaters early and then create something fun and playful for everybody else. My daughter liked dance for the first few months she took it, but after six months of doing the same steps over and over, she decided she would just dance in the living room next year, but we
would still buy the costume.

IS ANYONE HAVING FUN?

The thing is, if we listen to our kids they often tell us what they want. Canadian Parks and Recreation says children play sport for fun, competition, challenge and friendship. And they tell us when they are not having fun. I know my daughter did, the day she finished her first little triathlon in the pouring rain. She crossed the finish line, frozen and in tears, saying she was never doing that again. And I suppose I will have to listen to her, not because I really want to, but because she is strong! She is also the girl who quit soccer because all the parents were yelling at
her. They were actually cheering but at five she interpreted it as pressure.

My son hates parents yelling as well. At his basketball games, there’s one enthusiastic parent who often yells commands to the kids right over the coaches instructions. I know he means well but my son says it upsets him and it irritates the heck out of me. I think as parents we should collectively agree to let the coaches coach, to keep to encouraging comments for all players and never lose control on the sidelines. An organization called True Sport encourages leagues to have parents sign an agreement that gets everybody, including the coaches, thinking about the kind of sport they want. I believe we could all give this more thought. In
a recent survey, 92 percent of Canadians said they believe community sport has a positive influence, but fewer than one in five feel sport’s potential as a positive influence is being realized. This gap can be bridged by talking about what we want, investing in the training of coaches and committing to some shared values.

REALITY CHECK

When a mother says her six-year-old son loves diving six times a week, I am not at all surprised when she tells me a year later that he has given up diving all together. Perhaps the idea of what is good for the best is good for the rest has been taken too literally when it comes to sport. The kind of singular focus and deep commitment required of potential Olympians may be inappropriate for the vast majority of children. In many sports, the
move towards early specialization is not warranted on the basis of physiological development.

When I see eight-year-olds in serious training for a triathlon, I wonder if they will still be in the sport at 28 when they truly are at their physical peak. Physiotherapists tell me about the extraordinary number of overuse injuries they are seeing in 10-year-olds. Some muscles are very strong, but the overall fitness that comes from cycling and climbing trees, running and jumping are missing in these kids. And I wonder if the fun is missing
too. How much time do these kids have to just run around outside, use their imagination to build a fort in the yard or go out for a bike ride?

BALANCING FAMILY AND SPORT

I’m looking for balance. Perhaps not even a perfect balance, but enough space in the day so spontaneous play can happen – time for neighbours and a little weekend road hockey, a couple of evenings a week where we can hang out as a family. I also want sport for my kids and sport for every child in this country that teaches kids about teamwork, winning and losing, that helps develop their throwing, running and jumping skills so they can enjoy every sport they want in the future.

Sport can be so good:
  • It teaches kids to have dreams and set goals.
  • It illustrates the relationship between hard work and results.
  • It helps kids control their attitudes and learn to win and lose gracefully.
  • Sport is a good place to gain experience grappling with the intense emotions that competition invariably brings up.
  • Sport has the potential to be a great and positive force in children’s lives, not just helping them develop physically, but helping them develop a strong foundation of life skills.

We want sport, but we want it to complement an active family and community life and to embrace the values we hold dear. This is our opportunity and our challenge, to create the kind of sport we can be proud of, and to help every child enjoy the joy of scoring his or her first goal, the thrill of running a track race, the fun in playing together. To find this, sport needs a lot more play. Parents need to assess why their child is participating and to help shape community sport so that it supports the physical, mental and social health of our kids.

And so perhaps while signing up your child for baseball and music and soccer, you can decide to leave room in your family calendar for neighbourhood play and family time. At the first pre-season meeting, you might suggest a True Sport league and begin the process of exploring how you can influence the sport your child plays to be the sport you want and value. PC

By Silken Laumann| August 28, 2007

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