Monday, August 30, 2010

Get in the Game

A clinical and sport psychologist offers advice for a new season of youth sports

Richard Ginsburg, PhD

Pulling on a uniform -- complete with cleats, pads, gloves or skates -- and joining their friends on the team is a moment many children dream about. As parents, outfitting them with the right equipment to help them perform and stay safe is important, but fostering a healthy enjoyment of sports can have a lifelong impact.

Richard Ginsburg, PhD, is the co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Sport Psychology Program and the Performance and Character Excellence in Sports (PACES) Institute. He is also co-author, along with MGH colleague Stephen Durant, Ed.D., of the book “Who's Game is it Anyway? A Guide to Helping Your Child Get the Most From Sports, Organized by Age and Stage.” Here he provides advice on how to achieve a positive sports experience for both parents and their children.

What benefits do youth sports offer to children?

Dr. Ginsburg: Sports are not just a path to college scholarships and social status; they are a vehicle for physical and emotional health. It can be incredibly difficult for students to sit in class all day, and athletics can provide opportunities for diversity during the day. Exercise can also improve academic performance as well as reduce anxiety and improve mood. For those who struggle in the classroom, sports may provide a sense of competence in a different endeavor, helping them build confidence. Finally, we know that obesity rates in children and adolescents are a huge problem, and athletics can certainly boost a child's health and help them establish good physical habits for a lifetime.

What are the priorities of sports participation for different age groups?  

The main goal at all ages, whether they are 4 or 18, is helping kids develop a love of physical activity. The long-term psychological and physical benefits are significant. However, there are developmental priorities at different ages:

For children ages 1-6, the focus should be on safety and the enjoyment of movement. Competitive play for that age group may exist, but it is not at all the priority. Elementary school kids, ages 7-12, should focus on skill competency and friendship. Learning how to be part of a team and play with others is a big part of this stage in development. Introducing competitive play is a critical experience at this age-group; however, skill development and learning how to play the game properly and effectively with others is far more important.

Middle school and high school children, ages 13-18, are forming a sense of identity and asking themselves: Who am I? What do I do well? What are my strengths and weaknesses? As these young athletes approach their late teens, a period when they are approaching their physical maturity, they become more aware of how they stand athletically amongst their peers. This maturity coincides with the increased competitiveness of sports at higher levels. Making the team and earning playing time becomes increasingly difficult. A critical part of being an adolescent athlete is to find ways to face adversity and either continue to compete in their chosen sport, or when appropriate, consider trying a different sport. This experience of finding the physical activity that best fits each individual is a normal and valuable developmental experience.

What if your child gets cut from the team?

R.G. I don't believe in cuts for kids under the age of 12. They are still developing physically, cognitively, and emotionally at this stage, so cuts are not an effective measure to evaluate a child's potential. However, cuts for high school athletes are part of the reality. As mentioned above, part of being a young adult is dealing with disappointment and determining one's strengths and weaknesses and then making needed adjustments. However, when facing adversity such as being cut from a team, it is helpful to give our kids some time to feel the disappointment. The goal is to avoid letting the feeling persist for too long, so they can move forward. In certain instances, parents may help their children find another sport or activity that is a better fit and allows them more opportunity to play more. The most unfortunate outcome would be if a child who got cut did not look for other teams or opportunities and lost out on the benefits of physical activity. It's critical that our children have structured physical activity. Non-traditional sports such as biking, hiking, yoga, karate, and to some extent swimming can be great alternatives.

What if your child dreams of being a pro athlete?

R.G. There's nothing wrong with pursuing these big goals. You don't have to tell them "no way." Instead, try to create opportunities for them to play for good teams and, most importantly, great coaches. It's the great coaches who are going to give the experience our children need to progress while also providing the entire family with realistic feedback. If this path leads our children to play college sports or beyond, that's great. If not, they will still experience the many benefits that sports have to offer and will gain invaluable lessons about pursuing excellence. The reality is that most will not go on to play college sports. NCAA data indicates that approximately 5 percent of high school senior athletes progress to play any level of collegiate sports. So, always bare in mind the reasons for playing sports in the first place -- to be healthy, to compete and be part of a team, and to develop good physical fitness habits.

How can parents maintain perspective amid the increasing demands of youth sports?

R.G. It is different for this generation of parents than it was for previous generations. The enormous popularity of youth sports is only increasing the investment in time and money that families are making. As parents, we need to keep the big picture in mind and try not to get swept up in the competition and status of sports. I tell parents to think about the three to five core values they want their children to embrace and how sports serve a role in that. When the time and financial commitments of practices, games and tournaments become consuming for the family, it's important to be able to lean back on those values and examine whether the current plan is consistent with what we have identified as most important.

I also recommend that parents re-evaluate their child's sports participation on a seasonal basis and use multiple sources of data to inform their perceptions. Parents should make observations over the course of a season. Does your child want to go to practice or are they consistently forming excuses not to go? How do they feel after games? Do they seem like they are having fun? It is also helpful to consult a trusted coach or even the parents of our child's friends to see what they observe. Sometimes, our kids may not come out and say how they are feeling about playing. It may be hard for them to admit that they feel pressured or are not having fun. For this reason, using input from others can be helpful. As long as they are having fun and express that desire to play, we as parents can feel quite encouraged.

The MGH Sport Psychology Program's mission is to promote healthy psychological functioning, character, and optimal athletic performance for athletes of all ages. The Sport Psychology Program also provides guidance to parents, coaches, and administrators who support them.

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