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Sports ALL Kids Should Play
One of the questions I get asked the most is which sports I believe offer the best development capacity for young athletes.
This is a loaded question for several reasons…
First of all, ANY sports activity led by a quality coach is wonderful for children.
That being said, the real core and effectiveness of that statement is largely based on the ‘quality based coach’ comment.
Only when poorly educated and overzealous parents and coaches (i.e. adults) get too involved in youth sports can the experience turn sour. Parents often try too hard and look for success at a young age; coaches are often limited in their understanding of developmental science and routinely ‘train’ kids with ‘sport-specific’ (I hate that phrase) exercises that are too narrow in scope (not to mention that many youth sports coaches don’t know how to teach specific aspects of movement or speed , and yet they get annoyed when their athletes do not perform a given exercise to a high enough standard).
One of the most salient and problematic realities of the comments above is that there don’t seem to be many (any?) places for kids to just play anymore. Every youth sports activity is a life-or-death struggle that MUST culminate in victory… heaven forbid that we actually teach developmentally sound skills in a fun and energetic way to promote the wholeness of our youth’s development – which by the way should include emotional stability (for example highlighting the skills acquired in a given season rather than ‘wins’ and trophies won) and mental stimulation (in the form of engaging life lessons that instill a lifelong love of physical activity rather than a winning at everything – costs mentality that can burden children for years with various complexes).
Having said that, I encourage parents to remove the urge to watch their eight-year-olds win a weekend tournament; I encourage coaches to take off their ‘Lombardi’ hats when they get into a training or match situation; I also encourage strength and conditioning coaches to remove the desire to ‘test’ young athletes from a biomotor perspective and look only at increasing the child’s ability from a performance perspective.
My message is simple…
Play sports seasonally.
Find coaches and programs that emphasize skill acquisition, not winning.
Find coaches who do the same – work to instill skills in children, rather than create performance markers.
So here are my top four sports that all kids should play (in no particular order)-
In most parts of North America, children lack foot dexterity, and soccer is a wonderful natural booster of both foot dexterity and foot-eye coordination. Don’t discount this ability that is only necessary for football. Remember, the essence of developing the ‘whole’ athlete is to engage them in as many sporting stimuli as possible at a young age. Increased foot dexterity will eventually round out the overall ability of young people and enable them to progress more skillfully in their “chosen” sport.
Additionally, while many North Americans consider soccer to be ‘boring’ (although I’ll need an explanation of how soccer is boring, but baseball and golf are American pastimes), it’s a wonderful sport based on athleticism and tactics. Sudden bursts of explosive power, changing direction, seeing two plays ahead, playing a ‘force’ defense where the defender uses his body/skills to change what the offensive player wanted to do – these are fantastic athletic lessons that can carry far in a nervous system and later used in any sporting activity.
The unencumbered mobility of the shoulders and hips gives great flexibility to the body of a young athlete. With so many injuries occurring due to restraints and tightness in children (yes… I truly believe that many of the youth sports injuries we see annually around the world can be prevented by simple and basic increases in both systemic strength and mobility) hip and shoulder mobility initiatives are critical .
Additionally, kinesthetic differentiation is a physical skill that many children lack (this refers to knowing how much force is needed to achieve a desired result). My opinion on this matter is simple – everything we do with children, both in sports and in training, is based on maximum effort. In our zeal to search for these ‘markers of performance’, we overlook the notion that submaximal efforts are both developmentally healthy and build certain physical qualities that are not seen in results based on high strength. Swimming is the essence of building kinesthetic differentiation – children simply won’t last long in the pool if they put as much force as possible into each stroke.
3) Martial arts
Almost every martial art I know is based on skill acquisition as the primary marker. Not only is it mentally and emotionally good for the child, but it involves learning patience and ‘enjoying the journey’ rather than ‘seeking the destination’.
While much of the practice of martial arts in North America has been watered down (8 year olds earning black belts – if you’ve known anything about traditional martial arts, you know how ridiculous that is), most organizations I know teach a wonderful style of skill development and patient discipline.
Athletically, dynamic flexibility, systemic end-range strength, mobility, spatial awareness – the physical ability built through martial arts is awe-inspiring and can be applied to any sport.
Again, the physical elements that can be built through gymnastics are incredible – spatial awareness, flexibility, relative strength, dynamic and static balance – the list goes on.
If for no other reason, the ability to know where you are in space and land ‘well’ is an essential skill for any sport.
So… here’s my list.
Don’t get me wrong, the list is nothing without a quality coach at the helm of each of these sports. Martial arts instructors, for example, are often archaic in their knowledge of warm-up design, as are gymnastics coaches in their flexibility-enhancing practices. That being said, good coaches do exist and I urge you as a parent to find them. I also encourage coaches to seek joint venture partnerships with quality coaches and reinforce a child’s development with solid strength and skill based training habits.
Play football in the fall.
Bathe in the summer.
Participate in martial arts during the winter.
In the spring, you do gymnastics.
Mix in some developmental training and recreationally play other sports for interest and development (basketball and baseball for example).
By the age of 13-14 you will have a solid athlete with limited injuries who understands sports tactics and is strong, mobile and flexible…
Not a bad place to be!
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