I’ve mentioned before that I’m reading Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting. This morning I read the chapter about Scheduling. Much of what Payne writes about scheduling in general makes sense to me (balancing downtime with scheduled and more stimulating activities, making the schedules of each member of the family work for every other member of the family, etc), but I’m having a little trouble with the section about sports.
Payne makes a few points about organized sports:
- Children under about ages 8-10 need unstructured play more than they need sports, both for the activity and for the developmental benefits it offers.
- Playing and interacting with other children in open-ended games rather than in rules-driven sports is a necessary stop along the developmental path. Rushing through this period can cause sports burn-out.
- Sports participation peaks at age eleven and declines steadily from there. Payne quotes numbers from the Journal of Sports Behavior that report a 90% sports drop-out rate by tenth grade. This concerns Payne because, as he writes, organized sports provide particular benefits for children entering and in adolescence (although he’s not terribly specific about what these benefits are).
If we take at face value Payne’s claim that children under ten should have limited involvement in organized sports in favor of unstructured play, and we accept the idea that organized sports are then very important to adolescents, how does a child make the transition? How does a child who’s not played organized sports break in during early adolescence?
Some background about my experience with organized sports. I played soccer when I was in kindergarten. I was one of two girls on the team. I didn’t understand the game, I was intimidated by the very aggressive playing style of the boys, and I lived in mortal fear of having the ball kicked into my face (I’d seen it happen to my female teammate, so this was a very vivid possibility). And I didn’t like orange wedges. Basically, soccer had nothing to offer me.
I briefly played intramural rugby in college, but they never let me play in a game. Not that I blame them; I never seemed to acquire the ability to take in what was happening on the field, know what should happen next, and know what role I should play to make that thing happen. I sprained my ankle twice, got wicked shin splints, sent a girl to the hospital for a shoulder injury during a scrimmage (I was very good at tackling), and got a bloody nose when a teammate stiff-armed me for the ball. I enjoyed the parties, but never wanted to make a try (a rugby touchdown) because then I’d have to dance naked around the backyard of the house that was hosting the party. I lived in mortal fear of being required to “shoot the boot” and drink beer and spit and all manner of nasty stuff from the athletic shoe of one of the players on the men’s team.
And that was the extent of my experience with organized sports.
I had a desire to try organized sports in middle school and high school, but I never could figure out how to get started. Everyone else seemed to have experience playing volleyball or basketball or running track. How would I ever be able to make it through try-outs and onto a team if I didn’t already know how to play? I’d already had the experience of getting shut out of all three performing bands at our high school because of my poor auditioning skills and lack of private flute lessons. My high school was very competitive and if a kid hadn’t been playing their sport or their instrument outside of school since kindergarten, there wasn’t much chance of breaking in. (To give you a sense of the atmosphere at my school, Mia Hamm played soccer at my high school the year before I started there. My kindergarten soccer season was not nearly enough to prepare me for being on a team with Mia Hamm or anyone near her caliber.)
And let me tell you, playing a sport or an instrument isn’t fun at all if you don’t get to play. It’s just yet another opportunity to feel like an outcast.
In short, I missed out on the very important developmental benefits of organized sports during adolescence because I hadn’t already been playing in elementary school.
I don’t actually mind the idea of my kids never playing organized sports, but my husband loved playing basketball and baseball and football and rugby, and he really wants our kids to have that wonderful and character-building experience. And from what Payne says, it’s developmentally important, too. So, there’s the fear: If I just let my kids engage in unstructured play rather than getting them started in sports, how are they going to start when they’re 11 or 12 when every other kid has already been playing for 5 years or more?
I’m not going to allow this fear to move me into putting them into sports prematurely. I don’t really want to shuttle them to practices and games, and I definitely don’t want to get them in a traveling league. I’ve heard enough horror stories about that to know I’m not at all interested, regardless of the repercussions. But how am I going to help my kids have options when they’re teenagers if I don’t get them involved in sports during their pre-teen years?
Help me out here:
What was your experience with sports during your childhood? What were your kids’ experiences?
Is it possible to break into high school sports if you don’t already know how to play the game?
What benefits have organized sports had in your life and/or in the lives of your children?