Eight-year-old James had only been doing recreational gymnastics for six months when his coach asked him if he wanted to compete.
According to his mom, Jackie Patrick, James was always very athletic and competitive. He loved skiing, soccer and basketball, but he never found a sport he really loved — until gymnastics.
“My older son was very content doing more solitary things, like reading… but [James] liked to be among other people in an environment that was active, with lots of things moving around,” his mom said — so the gym was a good fit.
By the time he was nine, James was spending six to nine hours per week in the gym on training alone — and that was before the time spent actually competing.
Because of the time investment, Patrick made a concerted effort to get her family involved.
She joined the board at James’ gymnastics club, she brought her older son to competitions as much as possible — she liked to make those weekends away “bonding time” — and she made sure James truly understood what he was committing to.
“It’s very important to open up the doors of communication with your child [and] discuss what it is that they want,” said Patrick.
Parenting expert Gail Bell agrees — communication is key.
“You need to make sure your child wants to do this,” said Bell. “Sit down beforehand to lay out the expectations and make it very clear.”
For Bell, it’s most helpful to write down the schedule on a piece of paper or a calendar.
“Kids are very visual,” Bell said. “For example, explain that on Wednesdays, they must be at the swimming pool by four. That means they can’t stay on the playground and play after school.”
Whether your child is thinking about playing a competitive sport or is already, there are some things you should consider.
Is your child old enough to compete?
According to Richard Monette, managing director of Active For Life, children shouldn’t specialize in most sports until they’ve reached the age of puberty. (Although there are some exceptions, like gymnastics.)
“Every sport in Canada is mandated by a long-term athlete development model specific to that sport,” said Monette. “That’s mandated by Sport Canada, and that dictates… what each child should do within their involvement in their sport at a specific age.”
The model is based on science, and it exists to prevent children from being injured, among other things.
“When you overtax certain parts of your body when you’re younger, you’re [more prone to injury],” said Monette.
“As well, if they specialize early and they get to age 14 and they’re sick of that sport or they’re burnt out, then they have no other options.”
When children do a multitude of activities, they develop many different skills. This will help them stay active well into adulthood because they will have more options for engaging with sport.
Is your child actually having fun?
“Is your child running out of school, eager to go? That’s a kid that’s having fun,” said Bell.
Bell recommends choosing a trial period. That way, both you and your child have a date when you can quit if it’s not working for your family.
“I highly encourage parents to re-evaluate every term or semester,” said Bell.
Coaches can also have a big impact on whether a child is enjoying themselves.
That’s why, for Patrick, it was crucial to constantly check in with James about how he was getting along with his coaches.
“There are different types of coaches: Some are overly competitive and very self-absorbed, and others are [focused] on the growth of the athlete,” said Patrick.
“You want a coach who has your child’s best interests at heart.”
Make sure you’re in it for the right reasons
“‘Is this for me or my child?’ That’s a key question to ask,” said Monette. “For some parents, it’s difficult to remove their own ego from the equation.”
Bell has seen this happen many times in her line of work.
“In competitive sports, we know that a lot of parents are over-involved,” said Bell. “I would strongly suggest the parents ask why they want this for their kids.”
If it’s because you’re living vicariously through your child, then it’s probably not the best scenario.
It’s all about striking a balance
You should also ensure your child has enough time to do other things outside of the sport they play at a competitive level.
“When is their downtime? When are they getting to the park, just to play? What other sports are they playing? Is this impeding on their sleep time? Their homework time?” Bell said.
In the same vein, kids shouldn’t be allowed to shirk responsibilities because they play a competitive sport.
“That’s not creating a balanced child,” said Bell.
“If the whole world becomes about that sport, and that sport doesn’t turn out for them, or they get injured, or they realize they don’t love it as much… there’s a big hole in their life. We don’t want to make it all about [that one sport]. That’s just one thing they do within their whole life.”
Competitive sports aren’t the only option
Patrick said her son learnt most of his transferrable life skills from his time as a gymnast.
“Commitment, dedication, persistence and resiliency… and those attributes really transfer to university studies and to the workplace,” Patrick said.
Bell agreed that competitive sports can teach a child several great skills, but she emphasized that those shouldn’t come at the cost of the child’s happiness.
“There are tons of values that kids learn from sports… that we can apply to real life, but it’s not the only place you can learn them,” said Bell.
You can also learn these skills from other activities, such as music or school work.
“If a child has talent, that’s great, but it has to be kid-driven. And if you have a very driven kid, it’s the parents’ responsibility to talk to them about other aspects of life,” said Bell.
“Sports can be a lifelong joy… but they should be for enjoyment.”
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