Inside: Youth sports have become alarmingly cut-throat and competitive, but winning isn’t everything. Read about all the other reasons why youth sports are good for middle schoolers.
Team sports have come a long way since we were kids eating orange slices at halftime during our soccer games. Today, many of our middle schoolers are already expected to specialize in a sport so they can someday become D1 collegiate athletes. If they do choose to play multiple sports, they are busy almost seven days a week. Obviously, this isn’t healthy for any type of body, even (or especially) the young body. Furthermore, with the massive influx of youth travel sports, the focus has shifted from the love of the game to a money-making business. In a UCLA sports journal, Kristofer Jones, a sports physician with UCLA says, “Youth sports has evolved from a child-driven sense of fun, recreational play to a highly structured, adult-driven practice focused on skill development.”
My middle school son, for example, has played travel soccer for years. Sure, he plays basketball and skis for fun, too, but the focus is soccer. The older he gets, the more intense it gets. Currently, he practices three days a week plus has games on the weekends. Before each tryout season, I tell him, “It’s OK if you want to go back to playing recreational soccer and not travel.” He always chooses to play travel because he loves the game, but I fear he’ll get burnt out before he even becomes a teenager.
As Jones says, “We place a high regard on the achievements of elite athletes, and consequently, children, parents and coaches alike think the road map to that type of success is linked to concentrating earlier on mastering these skills.” All in all, our society measures kids’ success in sports through playing time and points scored. In reality, however, there are so many life skills that athletics teach. I know it’s hard not to get swept up into the competitive culture of youth sports today, but it’s vital that as middle school parents, we remember that there is so much more to the wide world of sports.
7 reasons why sports are good for middle schoolers—whether they win or not
1. They learn to prioritize their mental health
Playing sports is half a mental game. Student-athletes—even middle schoolers—need to learn to be both mentally tough, while also giving themselves a balanced life. And I’d argue, the latter is more important. Giving grace to themselves and their bodies must be taught by coaches and within the home so that they become regular healthy habits. Otherwise, the mental health of the athletes can deteriorate. One tool we use at home are nightly meditations before bed.
2. They become more resilient
Overcoming failures and getting over having bad games is a trait that middle school athletes should strive for. My son’s team, for example, proved this past season to get over bad games which are bound to happen at any level. They proved time and again to have a better second half or next game. They accomplished this by lifting each other up instead of hanging their heads. Essentially, demonstrating this type of resilience is more important than kids scoring goals.
3. They understand the importance of good physical health
Middle schoolers should also start to learn how to take care of their bodies. Not only should they be getting proper sleep and nutrition, but stretching and yoga should become part of the athlete’s routine as well. Pushing oneself to the limit in a physical activity won’t take them very far if they don’t learn to take care of their bodies. Again, we try to incorporate stretching as part of our nightly routine in our home as we emphasize overall well-being.
4. They appreciate what it means to be a good teammate
Teamwork is vital to a team’s success. All middle school athletes have a role on a team regardless of whether they’re the star player or not. So, rooting their teammates on or pulling them back up is something we should recognize our middle schoolers for doing both on and off the court. These lessons add to their social skills repertoire and filter into all kinds of real-life situations where they will continue to make a positive impact.
5. They learn the value of good sportsmanship
I’d like to think that shaking the opponents hand or even telling them, “Nice shot,” still has some meaning today. Blooming athletes can also respect refs and parents on the sidelines by not being rude or showboating after a goal scored or shot sunk. Sure, competition has gotten more cutthroat and starting at a younger age, but as parents, we can still encourage our adolescents to set an example for their peers and exhibit good old-fashioned sportsmanship.
6. They have fun
Having fun should still be the number one priority when it comes to middle schoolers playing sports. They should still look forward to practices and games because their passion to play is catapulting out of them. Of course, parents and coaches have a lot to do with this factor. So, let’s encourage them as much as we can to get out there to experiment, play hard, work with their teammates, and just have fun.
7. They can feel pride in how much they’ve grown
Just like academics, growth in sports is important, too. So, if you notice your middle school student really working on their basketball shot, let them know. They don’t need to have the pressure to become Michael Jordan overnight, but the fact that they’re improving (and taking the initiative to do so) as both a player and an overall athlete is important to recognize as well.
Parenting middle schoolers can be a bumpy road—and not just in youth sports. Between navigating friendship drama, peer pressure and trying to fit in, and all the physical changes that occur during this time, middle schoolers are experiencing a lot. (And so are we, the parents!) That’s why we recommend Middle School: Safety Goggles Advised by Jessica Speer. This book covers all the nitty-gritty of middle school life from crushes and crushes to gossip and grades (and everything in between).
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