How to keep kids in sports

Experts share advice to avoid burnout, injuries and pressure to win

By Sarah Mayberry, M.P.H. - Producer

DETROIT - Teamwork.  New skills. Sportsmanship. 

Just some of the lessons we hope kids learn from sports.

"It's fun.  I learn new moves, meet new people," said soccer player Lee Brandrup.

But not everyone is having fun.  Some player are hating practice.  Feeling stressed about games.  Feeling too much pressure to perform from coaches or parents.

Max Trenerry is a Mayo Clinic psychologist and a youth soccer coach.    He said he's seen many young players drop out of sports.

"That pressure may take the fun out of sports, and kids might play because of that pressure, not because of their own interest," said Trenerry.

Kari Drogosh is the athletic director at Chippewa Valley High School in Clinton Township, Mich.

"Sports takes up a lot of time in someone's daily routine.  And if you don't enjoy it, it's not something that you want to be forced into every single day," said Drogosh.

Drogosh is also mom to two young sons, Brady, 7, and Dalton, 5.

She said participation should be the focus for younger kids, not performance.

"Even at 5 and 7, they know when don't perform or they know when they have a bad game.  The important part my husband and I always stress to my children is, 'Did you have fun today, and did you try your hardest?'  And those are the two things we're always asking after practice or games," said Drogosh.

She stressed it's also important to expose children to a variety of sports.

"My older one plays football, he plays basketball, he plays baseball.  My younger one wants to try wrestling this year. So we're going to get him into wrestling," said Drogosh.  "If they don't like it, they've had a chance to try it.  Next year, maybe he doesn't do it, but at least he's had the exposure."

As children get older, Trenerry said there are three "C's" that can help keep kids interested in sports:  choices, competence, and caring.

"These are basic human psychological needs.  If we don't have those, we don't keep doing whatever it is," said Trenerry.

Children need to be able to choose the sports they want to play, even if that sometimes means quitting another sport.

The next "C" is competence.  Kids need to feel a sense of success, regardless of winning or losing.  That means focusing on their effort and personal improvement, something that can be challenging for some parents.

"It's difficult when your child may not be the starter, or may not be playing.  But the enjoyment that child feels, just being a part of a team, and being able to experience the winning and the losing together with their peers is so vital to their growth," said Drogosh.

Athletes also need to feel cared for -- that parents and coaches care about their thoughts and feelings and will take them seriously.

Trenerry said one way to communicate caring is to ask constructive questions after practice or games.  Instead of asking if the team won or your child scored a goal, Trenerry suggests -- "Did you have fun?  What did you learn in practice?  How did your team play?  How were the guys?"

To avoid burnout and reduce the risk of injuries, Drogosh said playing multiple sports, instead of specializing in just one, is key.

"It helps their muscles.  It helps keep them from injury.  Exposes them to different student athletes, different peers.  Also different styles of coaching, which I think is so important," said Drogosh.

Experts said it's critical for parents to model good sportsmanship and respect for other players, coaches and referees.

Parents should also watch for signs of burnout in your kids.  If they seem to be dreading practice or losing interest in a sport they loved, talk to them about what's changed and help them come up with potential solutions.

Finally, remind kids that games will come and go, but the friendships with their teammates can last a lifetime.

"One of the things that a coach of our program here said to our athletes is, 'These are the kids that will come to your wedding.  They'll be at your children's baptism.  These are your lifelong friends that you build,'" said Drogosh.

To learn more about keeping kids in sports, click here.

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