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Choose to Play the Long Game with Your Child’s Sports

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Are you terrified of becoming a “soccer mom” with a taxi sticker on the back of your minivan, but think you’d be the only parent in the neighborhood missing out if you didn’t sign your child up for the league? Should you let your child do what’s popular among peers at school? Or should you take into account his/her future, potential scholarships, and health risks? There are many factors involved in helping your child choose a sport and the questions that arise can be overwhelming. 

You can simplify the process by breaking it down into three areas to discuss. What sport do you want to play? Why is this sport the right one? How will this play out for our family?

First, what sport do you want to play? This is a crucial question for the child to answer. As a parent, you can help by exposing her to live games or videos of the sport. If your child is young, you probably have a better idea than she does what practices will entail and whether her level of physical coordination seems appropriate for the sport. 

You can also think through what sports your school or community offers and who you know in those programs. Is your child a social butterfly who will immediately make new friends or a cautious introvert who might need to join a team along with one trusted peer? Finally, think through your game plan in advance if the child goes to one week of conditioning, comes home with newly sore muscles and wants to quit; will you let her drop out, or are you hoping to use this experience to teach perseverance until the end? She needs to know your expectations up front. 

Second, why is this sport the right one? There are many things to consider about each sport your child wants to play. Some sports such as soccer and basketball are very team-oriented, while others such as track and field and swimming are mostly based on individual performance. The key question here is: what is your motivation for pursuing this specific sport? Do you want your child to learn certain lessons, such as how to win and lose graciously while supporting teammates, or does he excel in individual athletics and need the chance to develop physically while pushing himself to new heights? You and your child should agree in advance on your goals, whether it’s an Olympic bid or just to have a new experience for one season and make some friends. 

A related question is about the future. Are you hoping this sport will become a long-term activity for your child that looks good on a resume or even propels him into college on a scholarship? If so, think carefully about the odds of a return on that investment. The NCAA publishes statistics on the estimated probability of a high school athlete continuing to play in college. The 2019 numbers indicate that a male high school lacrosse player has a 12.6 percent chance of going on to play lacrosse in college. That’s more than twice the odds of a male soccer player at 5.5 percent and almost four times better chance than a basketball player finding a slot on a university team at 3.4 percent. 

For female athletes, the best odds of getting to play in college go to ice hockey players at 25 percent because there are so few women’s ice hockey programs in high schools or NCAA colleges. For those who don’t live in the frigid north, the best chances to keep playing in college come from lacrosse at 12.4 percent, field hockey, 10.2 percent, swimming, 7.3 percent or soccer, 7.1 percent. 

The final question to consider when evaluating sports is easy to overlook at first, but it might be the most important: how will this play out for our family? It is easy to sign up for a soccer program and overlook the game schedule, only to find yourself spending every weekend shuttling your athlete to games and missing other activities such as church or date nights. 

While it is important to give your child opportunities to excel in athletics, it is also important to protect the needs of your family. Don’t burn yourself out on one child’s athletic program at the cost of quality time spent with your spouse or other children. Talk with your child about your family values and how much time you think is reasonable to invest in an activity. There might be multiple options to get involved in any given sport in your area; look around for community or private leagues as well as school programs to find teams with less intense schedules. That way you will be able to “play the long game” for your child and for your family.