Getting children involved with sport from an early age is a great thing from a health perspective and also helps them to develop the balance, coordination and agility that they will need if they want to compete at a higher level when they get older.
Unfortunately, many young children end up having short sporting careers because they burn out and lose interest, or, worse, suffer a debilitating injury. As a parent, if you want your child to achieve their sporting potential there are several things that you should be mindful of:
Don't specialise at a young age
There will be plenty of time for your child to hone their skills in one specific sport as a teenager. Children get bored easily, and the sport that your child has a talent for right now may not be a lifelong passion. Even if it is, they may not grow up to have the ideal body type for it. Let them have fun, experiment and find the things they love.
Pushing a child to play a sport that they do not like could put them off sports as a young adult, or for the rest of their lives.
Don't over emphasize winning
Children are generally incredibly perceptive. Even if you tell them that "It's the taking part that counts" if you criticize the referee, reward victory more enthusiastically than you do less successful performances and act in a competitive manner around other parents your child will pick up on this.
Encourage good sportsmanship in both victory and defeat, and remember that the most important question is not "How did you do?", but rather "Did you have fun?"
Teach the importance of a good warm up
Young children are usually more flexible and less injury prone than adults but an athletic training regimen will take a toll on any child. Teach them the importance of taking warm up drills seriously, and if their coach does not use skill-specific movement drills in the warm up, or does not have a systematic warm up at all, consider taking your child to another club.
Take complaints seriously
Young children may lack the vocabulary to explain that something hurts or that they are chronically fatigued. If your child loses enthusiasm for a sport do not dismiss their behaviour as laziness or childish whims. Talk to them and try to find out if they have a concern that they are having trouble articulating.
Make time for rest
Rest, both physical and mental, is important. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep and that they are given the chance to broaden their horizons and develop hobbies outside of sport. This will help to prevent burn out and give them a chance to build up a circle of friends at the same time. Children are not miniature adults, and expecting them to train as if they are is not good for their social or emotional development.
Use the right safety equipment
According to Dawn Comstock, PhD, Principle Investigator at The Center for Injury Research and Policy at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, injury rates are higher in competition than in practice, but because young athletes spend so much time training the likelihood that an injury will occur in training is just as high, in real terms, as it is for competition. The sheer amount of time spent training increases the injury risk greatly and yet it is all too common for young athletes to use substandard safety equipment in day to day training, or even fail to use things like mouth guards altogether. This pits them at unnecessary risk of injury. Make sure that your child has the right equipment for the sport they are playing, that the equipment fits well, is comfortable and is in a good state of repair. If there is a culture of not wearing protective gear at their club, talk to the coach about changing that culture.
The more you know about your child's sport and about physiology in general the better you will be able to help your child. This doesn't mean that you should try to do the job of your child's coach, but if you have some understanding of the sport you will be able to reinforce his messages and help your child take care of themselves.
Stop Sports Injuries is a charity that works to educate parents and coaches about overuse injuries and the other injuries that tend to occur in youth sports. The charity provides codes of practice and educational materials for parents and coaches, and maintains a list of clubs and sports leagues around the world that are committed to protecting the health of young athletes. Origin Sports has made that commitment, as have some of the clubs that we work with. Talk to your child's coach about injury prevention and how you can work together to ensure each child on the team has a long and healthy sporting career.