After-school sports are good experiences

It is 4:05 p.m. Jennifer Folsom’s twin sons arrive home from school with a flurry of backpacks and papers. After hours in the classroom, they sit down again and pull out homework assignments with a groan. A quick dinner at five, and then it is off to soccer practice. “Focus boys, we have to leave in 15 minutes,” Jennifer reminds. After practice, the boys come home and get ready for bed.

This scenario repeats several times a week in the Folsom house and in homes across America. Kids might play a team sport like soccer or baseball. Alternatively, they might choose an individual sport like karate or gymnastics. Either way, more kids than ever participate in some kind of after-school sport.

The surge in after-school sports for preadolescents is a relatively recent occurrence. Kids of prior generations used to play sports and games in the backyard or at a local park. These games were often spontaneous pick-up games that usually did not involve adults. Today, however, organized sports have replaced this free play. Instead of joining in a pick-up game, kids are running after-school to established programs for soccer, hockey, football and other sports. Once reserved for high school players, after-school sports are open to children of all ages. Even children as young as preschoolers can participate in training and sports programs.

There are several benefits to after-school sports. On the field, sports programs are a safe place for kids to release energy after a long school day. Sports also have the obvious physical exercise benefits, helping children build their endurance, flexibility, agility and coordination. Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of adult health problems like diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

For less athletic children, the chance to contribute and participate in sports can be an important experience. “A lot of these kids will never get a chance to be on a team when they go on to high school and college,” said Tito Luna, senior program director for the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation in New York.

After-school sports carry benefits off the field too. By participating in sports, kids can:

Enhance confidence and build self-esteem. For children who struggle in school with reading, writing or other subjects, being on a team can be an important experience. On the field, they can shine as athletes and captains. Team sports give them a chance to experience the thrill of success and gain respect from peers. These experiences help children become more confident about themselves in all areas of their life, including school.

Teamwork and leadership. Team sports give kids a chance to interact with their peers. They learn how to work together as a team for a common goal. They learn how to use each player’s strengths to help the team. Stepping forward as captain or helping younger players on the field gives kids a chance to practice valuable leadership skills.

Develop personal skills. Sports help children learn self-discipline and the ability to focus. Sports like martial arts and gymnastics require intense focus and concentration. Children also learn firsthand how to become good winners and losers.

According to Ging Vann, athletic director at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, NY, “In terms, of positives, there are many. Of course, the benefits of physical exercise for children and teens are well known. Many of the benefits of sports go well beyond that. The best part of the lessons students learn through sports is that they are portable—confidence, leadership and the ability to take chances are all characteristics that the student can also use in the classroom.”

Although there are many benefits to sports, parents need to remember that sometimes too much of a good thing can be harmful to their children. In recent years, pediatricians have seen an increase in children with overuse injuries caused by too much training and not enough rest. In response, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children train no more than five days a week. They should also take time off from one sport for two to three months each year. Taking a break allows kids’ bodies to heal as well as helps them avoid becoming burned out psychologically.

Parents also need to be realistic about after-school sports. Amanda Brooker is a lacrosse coach and youth program coordinator.” Everyone thinks their kid is going to get a college scholarship. Truth is, I managed a Division I program and have seen what it takes to be a Division I athlete. Very few kids have what it takes. I’d rather see kids focus on academics but remain fierce competitors on the field and enjoy their sport,” she says.

For some children, sports are not the right fit. They may be more interested in music or art. “Know when your kid’s heart is not in the sport. Give them the opportunity to experience as many sports as possible and support your child’s decisions when they are not happy,” advises Booker.

Despite the challenges sports place on her family’s schedule, mom Jennifer Folsom is glad her boys are on the team. “They learn a lot of lessons they can’t learn elsewhere. I want to encourage the boys to find fun in fitness so that they will a healthy appreciation for sports and the fun and health benefits that go along with it. I want them to learn to be good teammates, helping team members get up when they’ve fallen down, to lose with grace, to win with modesty, to work hard to become good at something.” 

Carla Mooney is a freelance writer from Gibsonia.