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Change the Game: Parenting Young Athletes to Victory

You’ve seen it all. Blood, sweat, and tears (sometimes your own, but mostly your kid’s) have been shed on and off the field. But has it all been worth it?

Having kids take part in extracurricular physical activities can mean a lot of sacrifice on the part of parents (endless ferrying back and forth, keeping the morale up when it’s way, WAY down, and burning a hole in your pocket with all those expenses), but we’re here to tell you that all of it—yes even the 4 a.m. mornings—are worth it.

Don’t just take our word for it, though. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the pros to physical activity for our youth far outweigh any possible cons.

Physical & Mental Health

The activity guidelines state that youth who engage in regular physical activity benefit from improved bone health, weight status, cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, cardiometabolic health, cognitive function, and a reduced risk of depression. Psychological health benefits include higher levels of perceived competence, confidence, and self-esteem, reduced risk of suicide, and suicidal thoughts and tendencies. It may also lead to better mental health outcomes in adulthood for those exposed to adverse childhood experiences.

Important Life Skills

Sports participation also enables youngsters to develop social and interpersonal skills—think teamwork, leadership, and relationship building—and gives them key life skills, such as goal setting, time management, and a strong work ethic. These skills aren’t acquired automatically, however, and should be intentionally coached. Research shows that organized sports participation can reduce youth violence and crime.

Enhanced Academic Performance

Physical activity and playing sports also provides cognitive and academic benefits, and studies show a significant connection between physical activity and cognitive function (concentration, memory) and academic behavior (school attendance). Studies also show that students participating in sports have higher achievement test scores and higher math scores compared with students who don’t. Participation in extracurricular activities, including sports, has also been associated with higher GPAs, lower dropout rates, and fewer disciplinary problems.
When it comes to your own child, many factors need to be considered to ensure their overall needs are being adequately met on and off the field. Here are some points to ponder regarding your child’s athletic life.

Choose the Right Sport

While contemplating the myriad options kids have when it comes to sports, Doug Atkinson of Spare Time Sports Clubs ( believes in sampling before choosing. “Play enough sports while young and the right sport will choose you,” he says, adding that participating in both individual and team activities can allow your child to learn what they like and don’t like and eventually maximize athleticism to enhance performance in the sport of their choosing. Kaleb Wallen of Steve Wallen Swim School ( also believes that kids should be involved in a variety of sports and activities growing up. “This not only provides them an opportunity to see what top interests they have but also helps them stay focused and instills [the importance of] health and wellness at an early age,” he says. Karen Bowman of Bowman Martial Arts ( offers this piece of advice, “Ask yourself the following: ‘does my child work well with others and not mind sometimes waiting to play?’ If so, try a team sport. ‘Or does my child like to push themselves with their own goals?’ Then try an individual sport.”

Manage Stress & Competition

They’ve picked a sport. Now let the games begin. “I’m constantly telling my students, ‘Life is nothing but mistakes. They happen all the time. Fix the mistake and keep moving forward,’” says Bowman. “If you’re the type of competitor who can adapt and not stress the mistakes, the rest of your life (competitions, academics, relationships, work) will always seem easier,” she adds. Atkinson also believes that student athletes perform better when they can let go of the pressures of winning and just play. He believes planning a schedule, setting realistic performance goals for both training and competition, and not focusing too much on outcomes helps alleviate some of that stress.

Nutrition & Wellness

Although common knowledge, it should be emphasized that prioritizing diet, hydration, rest, and sleep are of utmost importance and key to any athlete’s performance. As Atkinson states, “Teaching young athletes to respect their bodies, both from the outside and the inside, is important to their performance and to having a healthy lifestyle.” He stresses the importance of sleep, too. “Consistent sleep at night and allowing for rest periods away from training are important to maintaining a healthy mind and body.”

Parental Roles

Atkinson believes parents have an important part to play in a budding athlete’s life, but he has a word of caution, too. “Being a parent should not mean taking over the coach’s role in developing a young athlete. Coaches should coach and parents should be there to support the athlete and the program in a variety of ways—from sideline cheering to providing snacks at competitions—while making sure the athlete is staying healthy and having fun.”

Another aspect of parenting an athlete is keeping them consistent and disciplined. “If you truly want your child to be an athlete and not just a participant in a sport, you need to help them be consistent,” says Amitis Pourarian of The STUDIO Martial Arts & Fitness ( “If your goal is to raise a happy and healthy athlete, as a parent, you need to create the space in their schedule to be consistent and not have them quit when they face adversity. This will make them better athletes and, in turn, when they’re good at something, they will be happy and confident when they’re doing it. This leads to a healthy mental attitude toward their sport,” she says.

Bowman believes in letting your children enjoy the journey and supporting them come what may. She also echoes Pourarian’s sentiment of always showing up with this example: “In martial arts, not everyone breaks the board on the first try. But the bravest always return to try again.”

by Tara Mendanha