Can participation in smaller clinics prevent burnout in youth sports?

So, it started. I took Nings (and 19 month old Pookie, but more to come on that) to his first soccer clinic. Thankfully, big brother Bink was there to help me corral the rascals while we gave daddy a break. With a minimal investment of $20 we were offered an opportunity to run, jump, and occasionally kick the ball. Any parent with a child in youth sports has a story about the hilarity of the first organized activity. Mine is no different. Except the day has changed my entire perception of the youth sports experience.

Look, Nings is barely over three-years-old. It’s a real accomplishment if he can remember to put his underwear back on. In no way was I expecting anything remotely resembling skill. What I was hoping for was a few minutes of fun dotted by a glimmer of an attempt to follow instructions. Halfway in, the boys were pleading to go back the following week. By the end of our 45 minute session I witnessed some attempt at compliance, and the kids had a heap of fun. Pookie was just as content to pile leaves and skip through the circles when she felt like it. Thankfully, I got a 2-for-one deal.

I realized that as long as my children enjoy youth sports, I could care less if they exceed at them. In all likelihood, I’m not raising the next Messi, LeBron, or Serena. I’m o.k. with that. I’d prefer if they were to become decent human beings who contribute to the world in a positive way.  Especially since Bink has decided that he could live without playing baseball for now. It’s very possible that he was playing because he was signed up by his dad at the age of four. Those early years were spent learning how not to play the game. Hold your hands like this. Stand like this. Don’t catch like that. So much time focusing on not messing up is a lot of pressure to put on a young child. The kid was burned out before he was nine-years-old! Why? He didn’t have an intrinsic joy for the sport he loves to watch. At least not enough to play himself.

A few years ago, the National Alliance for Youth Sports conducted a study at Northern Kentucky University that tested kids 6-8 years old on their ability to actually play baseball. Three standard skills: catching, throwing and hitting were used as qualifying markers. The results were mixed. Just about half of the kids tested did not meet the minimum standards established. I know that seems high, but that means the other half met or exceeded expectations. The key is to recognize, honestly, which group your kid belongs in.

I’ve concluded that it’s better to delay a child’s participation in organized sports until they display physical and emotional skills needed than rush them into it. Smaller clinics with a heavier emphasis on fun over skill mastery can help to prevent burn out, and injuries while we’re at it. There are plenty of opportunities to introduce competition; when they’re equipped to hand it. Until they can say on their own which if any sport they prefer, this will be the method for all three children going forward. While Bink observed his little brother and sister I saw his joy by proximity. He wants to participate, he just wants it to be his choice.

I’ll let you know how that goes. Onward…

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