On weekday afternoons, millions of boys and girls take to the gym floor, the track, the baseball diamond, the swimming pool and so on, for school-based sports or head off to athletic programs offered outside of school.
Participating in a sport, in addition to promoting fitness, can bolster selfconfidence and impart life skills that will be employed both on and off the playing field for years to come. That’s no less true for a youngster of modest ability as it is for the gifted athlete, provided that the activity suits his personality, skills, and, especially, interest. For all the physical, psychological, and social benefits athletics has to offer, this is supposed to be fun.
Children should be allowed to choose which sport(s) they’d like to play, unless they have a medical condition that would preclude them from taking part. Most young athletes naturally gravitate toward one or two activities. Perhaps they’ve displayed a talent for a particular sport, or they’re rabid fans of a professional team and dream of emulating their favorite players.
For a youngster who can’t decide which sport to pursue, if any, a discussion with Mom and Dad can provide direction. Among the points to bear in mind: What are the child's abilities, and how closely do they match those needed to play a particular activity? Physical strength, an advantage for a wrestler or football player, is not as essential for success in baseball, swimming or running, while speed and stamina are certainly key assets for playing lacrosse. Also, height is an advantage for basketball or volleyball, but is less important in sports such as soccer, gymnastics and tennis.
Sometimes, though, boys and girls get steered toward a sport because of their height or build, and the result can be a setup for failure. The classic example is the early developer who towers over the other kids and is typecast as a future basketball star—until it becomes apparent that he lacks the necessary coordination and quickness. “I worry about the single-sport adolescent who may be in the ‘wrong’ sport,” observes Dr. Luckstead. For that reason, he recommends exposing young people to a variety of activities from an early age. The advice applies as well to children who excel at a sport, to prevent their enthusiasm from burning out.
A child’s emotional makeup should also be taken into account when picking an activity. Would your youngster prefer an individual sport to a team sport? Is a fast-moving sport such as basketball more his speed than a game that proceeds at a more deliberate pace, like baseball? These may seem like trivial details, but they’re really not. For instance, youths diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autistic-spectrum disorder and other conditions that often impair concentration tend to do best in structured, individualized activities; these teens tend to be better in soccer, hockey, lacrosse and basketball, but may have trouble in baseball, gymnastics and golf.
Two other considerations are the intensity of the competition and the amount of time involved. Many youngsters, including those who enjoy sports, don’t want to commit to an interscholastic sport, with its after-school practices, or to a local, regional or national sports program. But they can still keep active through school intramural programs, community recreational centers or others, which get together once or twice a week and are geared more toward the recreational athlete.
Or they can organize games on their own. Put the word out to a half-dozen or more friends to meet at the park for some basketball, baseball, football or soccer.
No leagues, no umpires, no adult supervision at all. The fading of informal sports play from the American landscape is one of the sadder casualties of modern life, agrees Dr. Luckstead. “When I was growing up in the forties and fifties,” he recalls nostalgically, “there was nothing more fun than to get together a pickup game of baseball. You don’t see that nearly as much anymore.”
Fortunately, bowling, biking, jogging, martial arts, swimming and the other lifetime sports referred to earlier provide exercise without having to assemble a dozen kids. These activities are ideal for youngsters who shy away from organized athletics; here they compete against no one but themselves.