They flyBurst blog welcomes Nicole Sperekas, Ph.D, a child psychologist who has been working with kids and their parents for more than thirty years. She is the author of “A Sport for Every Kid” (which, in part, inspired the creation of flyBurst!) Ms. Sperekas is a lifelong athlete who is devoted to sports and fitness. She is an author of several books and articles for professional journals. Dr. Sperekas lives in Denver, Colorado.
fB: First of all, how did you become interested in the topic of kids and sports?
NS: I've come at youth sports from two angles. First, I am a child psychologist and have always been interested in the psychological benefits of youth sports, but also, concerned about some of the potential negative aspects. Secondly, I was a competitive swimmer through high school and then was a swim team coach during my undergraduate college years.
fB: The title of your book is “A Sport for Every Kid.” Do you really believe there is a sport for every kid? Can you elaborate on this idea?
NS: When I was a swim team coach for a community center, we had to take all comers. Some kids were klutzes on land; some had some minimal athletic ability; and some were naturally athletic. I realized that even the klutzes and children who were not very athletic could learn to swim quite well. Few of them became stars, but most had some modest success and besides, they had learned to be comfortable in the water, swim better than most recreational swimmers, and would be able to swim into their 90s. For the minimally athletic child, the trick is for the parents and child to educate themselves as to various different sports, understand what skills the child might have that translate to some sport or sport movement, and do further research into the community to see what youth sports resources are available. Parents can make this project easier on themselves by using my book, A Sport for Every Kid, as a resource and starting place.
fB: For the majority of kids, should sports just be considered another hobby like music or drama? Should parents be concerned if their child is not particularly interested in sports and physical activity?
I don't think parents should be concerned if their child isn't particularly interested in sports. But I do think such parents should gently try to find out why and perhaps challenge some of the reasons the child gives for not being interested in sports. Often, even children who don't appear to be very athletic, turn out to be very good when they find a sport that fits them.
NS: Yes, I feel strongly that participation in some sport yields great benefits, even if the child only plays for one or two years--so I'd like kids and their parents, to think of playing sports as something like a hobby --but one that can have great benefits: exercise (important in this age of overweight and obese children), health, and fun.
fB: We hear a lot of parents say, “Well, my kid just isn’t very athletic.” What’s your response to that?
NS: As I've indicated, even minimally athletic kids, with research, can find a sport in which they can become quite adept. They probably aren't going to be good enough to play at the college level or go to the Olympics, but many can be good enough to play through high school.
fB: What sort of impact should a child’s temperament have on sports selection? How should parents view team versus individual sports when looking for the right fit for their kid?
NS: For example, a child who is aggressive and who doesn't mind physical contact, may prefer sports that have these components: football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse. A child who is very shy might prefer an individual sport though I've seen shy children begin to blossom when playing a team sport. Thus, while temperament should be taken in consideration, it shouldn't be determinative.
Ideally I'd like all children to have some playing experience with both a team sport and an individual sport. Remember, even if they only play in one or both of these for a year or two, they do obtain many of the benefits each have to offer. If a child is very self-conscious about his lack of natural athletic ability, an individual sports like Tai Kwon Do or swimming might be considered. One of the benefits of some individual sports is that many of them can be pursued over a lifetime, for example, swimming and golf. Certain sports, while individual sports, are played as members of a team e.g., track and field, swimming, gymnastics. So, if a child participates in such sports, they gain some of the benefits of both individual and team sports.
fB: Can you talk about strategies that parents can use to get kids involved with sports at different age levels starting in (1) early elementary, then (2) middle school, and then (3) high school?
NS: Grade school children have gizillion of resources and opportunities to play sports --this applies for both individual and team sports. Their choices begin to narrow when in middle school and then even more so when they are in high school. This is seen most keenly for team sports. A child who is 14 and only now has expressed an interest to play football -- he will find it very difficult to try out for any school or recreational football team. Ditto basketball and baseball. The kids on these teams have usually been playing since grade school and now play at a fairly high level.
While the choices narrow somewhat for individual sports as the child grows older (but not nearly as much as for team sports), if the desire to play a particular sport is mainly recreational and not competitive, you can probably find a place where the child can be instructed in the sport and perhaps engage in some limited competition if she wishes. So, if a teenager decides she wants to learn golf, there are some programs available that are designed just for the older beginner. My book addresses this and Flyburst is a great website resource that can help parents and their kids find such programs.
fB There seem to be a lot of books out and newspaper articles bemoaning the state of youth sports – too competitive, too many injuries, too much money and time expended, etc. How would you characterize the current state of youth sports?
NS: Arguably, youth sports have become too competitive, too dangerous, too expensive, and too all-consuming and demanding of time. But, on the other side of the coin, there is much going on that can counter these trends. There are programs that educate parents as to what to look for in a coach for their child; the sports medicine doctors and researchers are doing a better job putting out guidelines for healthy sports and players: for example, we have a better understanding of limiting pitch count for youth pitchers (even the pros do so now) and not teaching throwing curve balls to them. These doctors are also learning about the long-term effects of concussions and advising coaches and staff as to how to deal with them. There are special programs that train youth sports coaches and that certify these coaches. These programs emphasize sportsmanship, fairness, learning to help all children bring out their best (not to focus just on the stars), etc. There are many other examples of ways to make the youth sports experience safer, healthier, more enjoyable for all.
I continue to feel that amidst all the potential negatives, when done right, sports participation can be one of the highlights of a child's life. I know it was of mine.
Nicole Sperekas, Ph.D. can be reached at email@example.com