Step up to the plate: Make youth sports programs more fun for the kids

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Many children who participate in youth sports – and their parents – have become obsessed with winning at almost any cost.

This attitude can interfere with what sports programs for kids should be all about, warns an educator in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

See for yourself.

“Go to any sporting event involving 6- to 12-year-olds and you’re guaranteed to see an out-of-control parent or coach,” said Daniel Perkins, associate professor of family and youth resiliency and policy.

“But at this age, the focus should be on teaching skills and having fun, rather than cut-throat competition.”

Kids at those ages are trying to get a sense of mastery, Perkins explains. They’re learning specific sports skills. They’re also learning important life skills, such as backing somebody up, accepting responsibility and leadership.

“A win-at-all-costs atmosphere also results in less commitment to values such as honesty and fair play,” he adds.

Sports dropouts.

Sixty percent of the boys and girls involved in sports programs drop out by age 12, Perkins explains.

When 12-year-olds were surveyed about the reasons they dropped out, they listed in order of frequency: loss of interest, takes up too much time, poor coaching, and too much pressure.

Perkins suggests some guidelines to keep in mind when shopping for – or creating – a quality sports program for kids.

* Fair and equitable policies that kids help create. “These policies should be age-appropriate and applied consistently,” he said. “No players should get away with anything simply because they have the best ability.”

* Orientation for staff, coaches, parents and youth. Everyone should know up front what’s expected of them, including expectations about conduct, fairness and honesty.

* Emotional control. Adults should be expected to set positive examples.

* Help for kids to learn from their experiences. “Adults should spend time after a game talking about what the players did well and what could use improvement,” Perkins said.

“Coaches should make use of ‘teachable moments,’ where something significant has just happened – such as a nasty foul or an accidental collision – to stop the game and ask the players to think about how they could have behaved differently.”

* Conduct follow-up activities. A post-season meeting can be scheduled to celebrate successes and plan for future changes and improvement.

* Maximize the social side of sports by promoting interactions among team members and between teams.

* Above all, Perkins says, sports programs should be fun.

“Watch kids play on their own,” he said. “If one team’s ‘killing’ the other, they yell ‘Switch!’ to divide up the talent. If someone makes a silly mistake, they yell ‘Do-over!’

Just for fun.

“Kids play sports for the action and excitement,” he said. “Games shouldn’t just be organized to determine a winner but to promote a close and exciting game – even if it means modifying the rules.”

* Finally, everyone should participate, regardless of skill level. “Less than 1 percent of kids go on to play professionally,” Perkins said.

“Why focus on that small number and miss a great opportunity for the other 99 percent?”

Perkins has developed a series of three booklets, Making Youth Sports a Positive Experience, for coaches and parents: Spectators, Role Models and Coaches.

Get a free copy.

Single and multiple copies are available free for Pennsylvania residents from county Penn State Cooperative Extension offices.

Out-of-state residents can contact the College of Agricultural Sciences Publications Distribution Center at 814-865-6713.

To find a local extension office, visit www.extension.psu.edu/CountyList.html or check the government pages of your phone directory.

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