While I shudder at the use of the word “force”, there’s such overwhelming evidence of the benefits of sport to our kids that I’d suggest at least “strenuous encouragement” become part of your parenting routine.
However, there’s more to making sports an integral part of your child’s development than throwing a soccer ball into the middle of a play group and just letting them go. It’s another one of those areas where “parent” is a verb, and you’ll find better results when you get more involved in some aspects, and less involved in others.
According to a study co-authored by Dr. Tanya Forneris, Associate Professor in the School of Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa, there are some keys to using sports as a developmental tool:
Sport teaches the power of goal-setting
As the study says, “Successful and satisfying goal accomplishment is a powerful mediator of psychosocial development. One of the advantages of using sport examples to signify goal accomplishment is that the goals in sport are typically tangible, short-term and easily measured. This gives an individual a better opportunity to see the value in goal setting and to experience success in setting and achieving goals (Bandura, 1995).”
Find ways to transfer sport skills to life skills
Sports aren’t just about physical activity. Wayne Gretzky, for example, used to talk about how his success in hockey was largely because he would skate to where the puck was going to be, not to where it had been. The challenge for parents and educators is to teach skills that can immediately be picked up on the playing field, then take those same lessons and give kids the tools to apply those skills to life.
Effective coaching is an art form
Older peers – properly trained – often make effective leaders in sport because of similarities in their circumstances and experiences. The study co-authored by Dr. Forneris says, “If the peer-leaders become too much like an adult in their teaching style, they lose some of their effectiveness. On the other hand, if they act too much like a friend, they lose their ability to communicate their message and maintain the control necessary to teach effectively.”
Furthermore, even if you’ve got a trophy case to trumpet the achievements from your glory days, study after study practically begs you to let the coaches coach. Resist the temptation to “correct” or “improve” something your kid has been taught, unless you’re a genuine expert, and the real coach knows you’re doing it.
So force your kid? Maybe not. But understand that sports, done right, can provide valuable life lessons that your kid might not even be aware they’re learning. Ask any hockey coach, and they’ll tell you that one of the most important skills a player can learn is how to “take a hit”. How much easier would your childhood – and adult years – have been had you mastered that skill in life?