The landscape of youth sports has undergone a substantial transformation the past few decades. Opportunity grew, in part, as more and more people realized the emerging specialization trend and the possibility of mass monetization. Since then, the scene has exploded. Despite research reflecting a cooling effect, millions of children across the country play at least one team sport.
So what are parents to do? It seems you can’t go anywhere these days on a weekend morning without seeing a parade of uniformed kids coming from or headed to a sporting contest.
Can’t outdoor play provide necessary amounts of exercise (and general leisure) to stave off the obesity epidemic we’ve heard so much about? Yes, that is true. But the value of youth sports is not limited to physical health alone.
Whatever your stance on competitive sports, it’s helpful to keep in mind the various realities that accompany a child’s participation.
For starters, wander down to a local field or gymnasium most any weekend. It isn’t hard to find travel tournaments or recreational leagues offered in a variety of team sports. What you’ll observe ranges from heart-warming to (sometimes) outrageous and downright ludicrous.
Some leagues get this right. They are clear about their purpose and educate parents about the role they are to play, and how a final score should be buried far down the rung of importance. They exist for the sake of development — physical and social. These leagues promote recreation, bonding, and learning how to play with others.
Unfortunately, this message is not always the norm.
When determining if or when to sign your child(ren) up for youth sports, there are a series of things to consider:

Ask Them

It’s true, not every child craves competition. Others, still, love everything to do with it. Before making any decision, your child should be a part of the conversation. I LOVED playing baseball growing up does not constitute a reasonable justification for putting your completely disinterested child in Little League. And, the fact that you may not personally enjoy a sport (or sports at all) does not mean you should discourage a child from participating either.
Kids have a voice. Talk things over with them, and arrive at a logical decision that makes sense for all parties involved.

Experience > Achievement

Parents should emphasize things like the benefit of exercise and enjoyment. Sports are games, and games are designed to be fun. If there’s no fun involved, something is probably off track.
There are two areas that parents can’t go wrong emphasizing: having fun and giving one’s all. For parents of elementary age children, that’s all that really matters. Youth sports should be more about experience than achievement. Kids should begin to enjoy team camaraderie, working together, and the recognition that everyone has a contribution to offer.

Value Effort Over Results

Praising results rather than effort can have an undesirable effect. The problem with results-based praise is that a child (no matter what we as parents convince ourselves of) will never be the best at something all the time.
Unless they hit the genetic jackpot and pair it with a tireless work ethic (see Lebron James), it just doesn’t happen. So, when a child no longer experiences the same level of success and has grown accustomed to results-based praise, what happens then?
This is why praising things like teamwork and determination go a lot further than celebrating how many goals Lily scores. Lily can control how she treats her teammates as well as her unwillingness to give up; she cannot control the skill level of the other team’s goalie.
Praising effort isn’t limited to participation in sports either. Effort-based recognition should be applied to any endeavor a child pursues whether that’s playing an instrument, writing code, or Girl Scout involvement.

Educational Interference?

Are sports and education at odds with one another? They can be, but certainly do not need to be. If a child’s athletic commitments require an overabundance of weeknight training sessions punctuated by consistent weekend games and tournaments without sufficient rest/break time, then, yes, this could be an issue.
On the other hand, sports can complement the educational experience by offering an outlet for students to exercise different parts of their brains and bodies. Truly, balance is a key factor. Too much academic focus without the right amount of physical movement can inhibit learning. Along the same vein, non-stop athletic participation without a focus on learning presents its own series of issues.
Sports can be wonderful tools used to teach invaluable life lessons. And parents serve a crucial role in helping children understand their proper place and the right attitude involved. If your family has never been much on sports, give one a try and see if it fits. You and your child may discover a new experience that bonds in a completely unexpected way.