How to Help Your Child Become a Lifelong Athlete

hockey-kidsParenting a youth athlete is full of pitfalls and pleasures.  Parents need to walk the fine line between encouragement and pressure.  Without proper parental discretion, too many children will quit sports before they reach their full potential. The following article is an excerpt of an interview Executive Editor TK Stohlman conducted with the author of “Just Let the Kids Play,” youth sports expert and former NBA player, Bob Bigelow.

Stohlman: I recently read in a Michigan State study that 70 percent of children quit youth sports by age 13.  Is that true?

Bigelow: Yes. The largest age group playing an organized sport in the United States, are ten years olds.  But by thirteen years old, seventy percent of them have left.  Thirteen is roughly seventh or eighth grade.  I have sat in middle school auditoriums and out looked at a bunch of  kids and I saw six foot girls and four foot boys side by side.  It makes me wonder about their sport experiences.  Who has been coaching them?  Have they already been told that they are not an athlete?  Sometimes it makes me cringe.  Especially since  the person who told them they weren’t going to be an athlete is often a butcher, baker or candlestick maker.  They were probably a volunteer and probably a pretty nice person, but they got caught up in winning because that’s what the system demands.

Stohlman: Okay, so if those are the stats, Bob, looking at travel, select and again looking at the drop-out rate, what are some solutions?  What are some ways to help kids continue to play and have successful seasons?  What are some tips for parents who want to see their kids play through high school and continue to play even as adults?

Bigelow: Without getting into magic formulas, and there are not any, all politics are local in this country and nothing is more political than  youth sports.  When you are dealing with sports and kids, you are dealing with human emotions, as well as the child’s satisfaction and elevation within the whole sphere of the sports world in a given community.  So, I tell parents, at the younger ages when kids are joining, if you want to shape this, reshape it or tweak it you have got to get on the boards and attend the meetings just like you would for school committees and boards.  You have got to have a voice.

I live in a community in suburban Boston, and I have been on the youth basketball board now for 25 years.  I know exactly how it works, but for the first ten years I was pretty clueless.  After ten years I reshaped the program to fit the philosophy that I now share with the rest of the world.  But to be honest, there are too many closed youth sports shops in this country.  Mostly men who have been around too long and use the program as their own little play toy.  I know it  can be very difficult sometimes to bang on the door and say, “Let me in, I’ve got ideas, maybe even different ideas than you guys.”

Stohlman: So, your advice is to get on the board…

Bigelow: Get involved.

Stohlman:…become involved with the association and be more or less a change agent.

Bigelow: Yes. You can change from inside with less difficulty.  You can also change it from the outside, but it’s not going to be easy.

Stohlman: So once parents get involved and they join the boards, can you offer certain things for which parents should strive?  I know we’ve discussed playing time before, time on, time off; but are there certain standards that youth sports associations should go by to help kids continue to play?

Bigelow: Yes. You just mentioned the biggie there: playing time.  This is a huge issue.  To me there is no more important issue with a child in sports, because of all the studies done at Michigan State and elsewhere, the number one need for a child in sports is to play.  That is the invaluable truth from ages five to nineteen.  So a good marker, a good determination from the organizational standpoint is, how much are you allowing children to play?

Stohlman: If playing time is the biggest need of a child in sports and we have got parents who are getting involved on the boards, how do they ensure that there are some rules in place?

Bigelow: They have to mandate it.  If you don’t mandate it, too many adults out there who want to win will take over your organization.

Stohlman: And what do they mandate?

Bigelow: You mandate, very simply, the size of your teams and how much playing time everybody must get.  Write it out on paper so if your coaches don’t want to do it, they don’t have to coach.  That is the carrot on the end of a stick for the kids.  There is one truth about kids in sports - they want to play not watch.

Editor’s Note: A special thanks to Bob Bigelow for this interview.
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