Choosing the Best Youth Sports Program for Your Child

By Jeffrey Rhoads

Ideally your child plays for a coach who is an excellent instructor-one who recognizes teaching opportunities and communicates lessons in a positive, uplifting manner. But in addition to a good coach, participating in the right youth sports programs is essential to your child’s enjoyment of sports. Choose the wrong program or league, and you risk damaging your child’s desire to play sports.

Just as a coach should find a team role in which a young player can succeed, you must locate the youth sports program that best suits your child’s age, interests, and level of play. Only by providing your child with a progression of playing opportunities that match these factors, will you provide him or her with the best sports experience.

Starting Out
For the youngest children playing organized sports for the first time (ages five through eight), the emphasis is primarily on fun and basic skill instruction. Fun at this level is running around with a minimum of structure and rules. Within a couple of years, your child can more fully participate in the adult version of the game and begin to learn additional individual skills and team concepts. Competition is also introduced at this level. Youth sports programs that are developmental in nature and participation-based are essential to children in both of these age groups. You should make sure that your child’s youth sports leagues emphasize these principles.

As your child ages and his or her skills develop, you may see your child excel in one or more sports. You will then face the decision of placing your child in a more advanced, competitive league. Possibly your child will have the chance to play with older children. An opportunity for your child to begin specializing in a sport may also appear. In these decisions, carefully weigh the pros and cons. If your child truly enjoys a sport, exhibits a competitive nature, and is more physically mature, playing at higher levels with better players will usually improve his or her level of play. But advance your child too quickly and you risk your child’s confidence and enjoyment of the experience.

Avoid SpecializationExplore Multiple Sports
Specializing too early presents the risks of injury, burnout, and loss of crossover benefits from other sports. Several studies (most recently a 2011 study conducted by Loyola University Medical Center) have found a higher incident of injury associated with early specialization. For children who have not yet reached puberty, specialization in a single sport is also risky because physical maturation (changes in body type) may limit their ability to succeed in that sport. For example, a young girl who grows to be six feet tall is unlikely to find success as a gymnast.

Try to balance your child’s development against these risks and select youth sports programs that you feel best match your child’s particular personality and ability. The right youth sports program should challenge your child, but also enable them to enjoy the entire experience.

Should your child participate in select travel teams, you should still look for a program that provides good instruction. A league that is comprised mostly of competitive games, but little practice time, will not provide the opportunities for a coach to teach and develop his or her players.

Also remember that competitive, talented athletes often still enjoy leagues which emphasize participation. These leagues can provide a chance to play with friends in a more relaxed environment. They also offer better athletes the opportunity to develop and exercise leadership skills. As a parent interested in your child’s happiness, you could do a lot worse than placing your child in a participation-based instructional league.

Provide Opportunities for Self-Directed Play
And finally, provide your child with opportunities to play pickup games with other kids. This unstructured, self-directed form of play complements organized sports and affords your child with other essential benefits.

Jeffrey Rhoads has coached youth sports for over 25 years. He has worked with all levels of young players–including both absolute beginners with limited athleticism and more talented athletes who went on to success in high school and college. Mining both his experience as a youth coach and his own joyful, sports-filled youth, his writings provide valuable guidance for parents, coaches and players on how to create a great youth sports experience. He is the author of The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child.

His blog, Inside Youth Sports, can be found at: www.insideyouthsports.org

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