Simplifying Childhood: What About Sports?

Game of Battledore and Shuttlecock in 1804
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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?

4 Replies to “Simplifying Childhood: What About Sports?”

  1. I don’t have a chunk of time to write a “real” reply, but my quick version is:

    I never played sports until high school. I joined the tennis team (after trying out in 7th and 8th with no luck) in 9th grade, and became the second seeded doubles player in the school. I was on the cross country team for a short stint (lost interest). I mountain biked in high school as well, until I had a career ending injury involving my knees and a rock. That also took care of my tennis career, too (not that that was really a thing I took seriously). After college I played soccer in CA, in the silicon valley area. LOL we played against the Santa Clara University women’s soccer team in a scrimmage once–THAT wasn’t pretty (at the time I think they were the NCAA champions or were in the finals or something like that). That’s just what my experience with sports were. now I have really bad arthritis in my knees (dating back from the bike incident), so sports aren’t much of an option.

    In my experience, if a kid wants something bad enough, they will do whatever it takes to do it. I really hate how kids’ sports have become SO competitive, and hateful, etc. I’m actually really glad that my son has no interest. But if a kid wants to take something seriously, there are private lessons available, trainers, etc. when they are ready, and then they can try out for the teams and whatever. I’ve always felt like I’ll just conquer that when it comes, if it comes. But really, at least here and back when I was young, I didn’t feel like i had a huge problem getting into sports even though I didn’t do soccer or softball when i was little.


    1. That’s reassuring, but I’m wondering, where did you learn how to play tennis well enough to get on the team in high school?


  2. I played zero sports. Asthma and a tendency towards severe injury with little movement kind of prevented that. My kids tried organized sports, but found them so competitive they did not enjoy it at all.

    My kids are now homeschooled. Many people will ask me how I plan for the kids to play sports, as our area only has sports through the school districts, and are stunned when I say…we don’t. It is not necessary or even desirable for many people. Most of the home school families I know have no intention of their kids playing sports. Some that I know whose kids went back to school just to play sports, found that both the school and the sports were lacking, and and went back to homeschooling.


    1. Thank you so much for your comment! We homeschool, too (which is something Payne doesn’t address in his book at all). Everywhere I’ve lived there have been neighborhood or town youth leagues for various sports, but these are often hyper-competitive. Some towns where we live now allow homeschooled kids to participate in school sports, but I don’t know many people who’ve had success with this option (weird things like the kids needing to prove academic performance by some standard that’s not applicable to homeschoolers in our state, like report cards or performance on standardized tests, which our kids aren’t allowed to take, even if we wanted them to). I’ve been thinking that maybe come springtime I might see if I can get a group of homeschoolers together and just take the kids to a field or a court each week with some sports equipment and just see if they’re interested in a pick-up type game. Something informal, where we can teach them rules if they want, but just let them horse around and make up their own rules if the formal game doesn’t appeal. But that might be beyond a non-sports person like me. 🙂


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