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Sport has a great many benefits for your children, beyond exercise, writes Dr Jo-Marie Bothma, clinical psychologist and play therapist.
Sports are so much more than just learning how to master a specific set of skills and to be part of a team. Sports are a set of life lessons and children growing up without the opportunity to enjoy those are really at a disadvantage.
It is not only the very popular team sports such as rugby, netball, hockey and cricket that can benefit your child. Solo sports where the main focus is more on the individual, such as martial arts, horse-riding, gymnastics, tennis, golf and, for instance, swimming or dancing can be just as beneficial to your child’s mental, physical and social development.
The benefits listed below can be attained by participating in either team or solo sports.
Children who play sports are more likely to be physically fit, less likely to be overweight, and show improved sleeping patterns. In fact, many children who are physically active typically remain at a normal weight throughout their childhood and increase the possibility of having a healthy weight and a love of physical exercise to carry over into their adulthood. This, in turn, lessens the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.
Enhanced motor skills and improved co-ordination are other great benefits of taking part in sports. Research findings support a causal link between physical activity and both motor skills and cognitive development in preschool children. Therefore, there seems to be a positive correlation between academic success and taking part in sports in general.
It would be almost impossible to take part in sport without learning very basic life skills such as time management. Children come to understand the first steps of planning a day (a swimming lesson happens after naptime), planning ahead (tennis happens every Wednesday) and how to prioritise one activity over another (missing out on Karate practice in order to attend a friend’s birthday party).
Experiencing joy when winning or ‘getting something right’ and coming to understand and deal with the disappointment of losing or striving to master a specific skill in a particular sport are all valuable skills needed throughout life.
Parents can assist their children through the processing of so many different feelings. They can help a young child to navigate their feelings and experiences through the first starter stages, the hard work phases, as well as the successes and disappointments.
Statistics show that children can also reduce their stress and depressive feelings by taking part in sport. Some sports will allow for the development of leadership skills, while almost all sports will aid in the development of self-discipline and self-motivation.
A report compiled by the Human Sciences Research Council in 2016 stated the decreased likelihood of children abusing substances when they are older if involved in sports from early on. As many children also develop a sense of belonging, their self-esteem increases. Children can also develop self-confidence as they learn about themselves and their abilities.
Sports do not just teach children the fundamentals of playing, but also instil respect for authority and rules. Children learn the consequences that come with not following the rules. They are taught to respect their coaches who guide them. They also learn good sportsmanship and to treat their opponents respectfully.
A good age to start
Toddlers around the age of two to three years may be beginning to get the hang of many basic movements but are too young for most organised sports. At this age unstructured free play is usually best, such as running, tumbling, throwing, catching and swimming. If your three-year-old is showing a passion for a specific sport don’t discourage it, but aim to focus on introducing the sport and the skills needed for the particular sport in a playful manner and in a child-friendly environment.
Children at age four to five are instinctively active and mostly enjoy the outdoors. It is a great idea to make use of this developmental chapter in your child’s life and try to encourage time outside and the learning of basic sporting skills such as throwing and kicking a ball, skipping, jumping, running and pedalling a tricycle or a bicycle.
Some preschools also offer introductory sessions in many solo and team sports where the main aim is not of a competitive nature and the focus is more on having fun and becoming familiar with that specific sporting arena. This is a good age to develop hand-eye co-ordination and a basic understanding of rules for games and sports.
By the age of six or seven, children are physically better equipped to participate in sports. They have longer attention spans, their vision has improved and they begin to develop an awareness of the rules. While some children are motivated by competitive play and eagerly participate with the aim to win or to achieve, many are not ready for the increased pressure until 10 or 11 years of age. At this age most children have matured vision, better co-ordination and balance and the ability to understand and recall sports strategies. They are typically ready to take on complex skill sports.
Avoid common mistakes
In today’s fast-paced and highly competitive world, parents and coaches run the risk of overdoing it. There is a big difference between encouraging active lifestyles, introducing a variety of different sports, and flooding your child’s programme to the point of them having no free time to just be children.
The golden rule will be to ensure that young children participate at a proper rate and that parents and instructors keep their expectations realistic and age appropriate. This is usually individually based and should be considered uniquely. What might be good for one child may be too much or too little for another.
A child’s temperament play a big part in this and where one child will happily take part in all their school has to offer, another child might experience anxiety and feel overwhelmed with more than one sport activity per week.
Another important factor to consider when it comes to sports is that of encouragement. A young child’s perception of a sport activity can greatly be impacted either positively or negatively by the way a parent or coach cheers them on along the way.
Too much encouragement that mimics a feeling of forceful obligation can render a child numb and turn them completely off. Parents can have such a strong influence in the experience their child has in sport and they should consciously be aware of that.
Hints and tips
Here are some easy and practical tips for how to help young children thrive and enjoy participation in sport:
- Select appropriate sport opportunities for your child. A very social and busy child might enjoy active and team sports such as hockey or rugby. A quiet and more subdued child might prefer individual and less competitive sports and parents might select golf and ballet as alternatives to explore.
- Draw on your own support network and coping skills to help manage the demands of juggling your child’s weekly sport schedule with their school programme, as well as your own work responsibilities. Parents should ideally aim to take turns to play taxi, supporter or coach during the week. Grandparents often do not mind getting involved, and being part of a driving club can save time.
- Be responsive to your child’s needs and have reasonable demands for their participation. It is not only not financially feasible to enrol your pre-schooler in all the activities the school has to offer, it is also not mentally healthy to do so.
- Anticipate the emotional demands of competitive sport and develop strategies to manage your own responses. If you are a very competitive person in nature, beware of not overwhelming your child and unconsciously putting pressure on them to excel beyond what could be expected.
- Adapt your parenting support as well as involvement to fit your child’s developmental stage. Sit next to the swimming pool during lessons, cheerfully clap your hands and blow kisses to show support while your little toddler is learning how to become comfortable with water. Kindness and easy-going encouragement are key.
- Build and maintain healthy relationships with your child’s coach, officials, other parents as well as the other little players. It is so much more comforting for your child to see you laughing and getting along with everyone.
- You may want to think carefully before encouraging your young child to focus on one particular sport only because this could stop them from fully testing their skills and discovering other activities they may enjoy.
- Remember children change as they grow and your little one might show a keen interest in martial arts one year, only to switch to tennis by the next year. That is completely normal. Keep monitoring their level of enthusiasm and never try to persuade your child to continue with a sport they clearly don’t enjoy, whatever age they are.