If your kiddo has been hounding you to join a sports team, you might be finding yourself running through every excuse you can possibly think of to keep them on the sideline. After all, one-third of all childhood injuries are the result of a sports-related activity.
But there is a lot of good that can come from participating in sports, says Alex Podowski, LPC, an intensive outpatient program therapist at Texas Health Behavioral Health Center in Uptown.
“Team sports and sports, in general, are invaluable. They teach compromise, community, comradery, competitiveness, resiliency, drive and so many other things that can help children better navigate life down the road,” she explains. “In fact, research shows children and adolescents involved in sports are less likely to be involved in unhealthy or risky out-of-school behaviors and have a higher likelihood of displaying strong community and self-esteem.”
If the guilt of keeping your child sidelined is eating away at you more than your anxiety these days, sorting through those emotions, hesitancies and fears can help you and your child find a good compromise.
Doing Your Research
Even though there are a lot of benefits when it comes to participating in sports, Podowski knows there are very valid drawbacks and reasons for concern that parents must grapple with. It’s important to weigh the pros and cons when determining whether to let your child participate in the sport, which she says starts with arming yourself with information.
“The first thing parents need to be thinking about before conversations and before sorting out emotions is exploring the organization that they are thinking about putting their children into,” Podowski explains. “It is imperative that you trust the organization, the coaches and everyone involved. Parents need to be able to trust that these coaches will put their children’s wellbeing above winning.”
Talk to other parents whose children are involved in sports teams in your area. It can be especially helpful to chat with parents of older children who have been active in local sports teams for a few years. More often than not, they tend to know the coaches and team environments well based on feedback from other parents or personal experience.
Podowski adds that a lot of competitive sports organizations have ties with medical facilities and training staff, and it can be helpful to research those things before picking a team and/or coach. Your child’s pediatrician may even be a helpful resource when it comes to suggesting reputable youth sports leagues in the area.
Starting an Internal Conversation
Next, you should ask yourself, your partner and/or your support system why you’re hesitant to enroll your kiddo in a sport. Podowski says, that while it may be difficult, try not to avoid the tough feelings. Be honest with yourself about what your hesitancies are.
“I think it is extremely important to start conversations with your co-parents or support system as early as possible. Most of the time, we see parents minimizing these feelings, which leads to the feelings becoming more invasive and, often, these more heightened feelings are handled poorly due to the feelings coming back at a higher intensity,” Podowski says. “Early and often is my motto, for all my patients!”
Getting these conversations started can help you talk through what you’re feeling, whether it be with a therapist, other adult or co-parent so you can better talk to your child about your concerns and any concerns they may have.
Some good questions to consider include:
- What is my child saying? Is it a sport they want to play and will enjoy?
- If they’re in sports currently, are they enjoying themselves, having fun and enjoying going to practices and games?
- Am I stopping them from participating in something that they love out of my fear?
- What are the risks associated with playing this sport?
- What precautions can I take to help my child play safely and successfully?
“The moment we are projecting our fears and feelings onto our kids is the moment we might need a nice hard stop,” Podowski adds. “It is incredibly valid to be terrified about the well-being of your child but is your anxiety now becoming theirs?”
Taking a moment to ask yourself these questions and sort through this anxiety can be especially helpful if you’ve recently witnessed a shocking sports injury, either through youth sports or at the professional level, such as the widely televised injury of NFL Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin last season.
“Feelings can be big and scary especially when they are fresh. Try to take some time exploring your fears,” says Podowski. “Our initial processing after a scary incident is, generally, not very rational. We are usually heightened and overly alert. Therefore, all our decisions tend to be very extreme.
“In the moment, you may feel compelled to hastily pull your kiddo out of sports or ban them from doing sports altogether,” she continues. “But we want to be making decisions when our heart rate and blood pressure are regulated, and we have had some time between discovery and solution. That’s where having that support system to go to can be really helpful.”
Talking to Your Kiddo
Podowski notes being honest with your concerns at an age-appropriate level can help inform your child and open the door for discussing any concerns they have or maybe why they feel so strongly about joining a sport.
“When talking with kids, it is helpful to just start an open dialogue without leading the conversation. A lot of parents come into the conversation with palpable fear and panic that the child feeds off. Try to come in neutral and curious,” Podowski explains. “If your child also expresses some fear, discuss the safety precautions that have been set up to keep them safe or come up with a plan for your child to help them know if they are feeling vulnerable to injury.”
Additionally, Podowski says that if your kids are young or are starting at a lower level of competitiveness, it’s important to make sure you are involved in the process of navigating injury for both yourself and your child.
“It is incredibly helpful to teach kids to listen to their body,” she explains, “Help them learn their limits to make sure they are setting boundaries for themselves and not playing through injury or playing a sport they no longer enjoy because they either don’t know any better or they’re worried about letting the team, their coach or others down. This helps to let them know that their needs matter and that they should never do something they’re uncomfortable with out of fear of letting someone down.”
Making a Decision
Ultimately, Podowski says the decision to let your child play sports is entirely personal to each family and will not look the same for everyone — And that’s OK.
“I think whatever feels best for your household is the ‘right way’ to go about it,” she explains. “I wish there was an easy answer to this, but I think each household is going to make some hard decisions. There will inevitably be people telling you not to worry, to let your kids play the sport, or on the flip side, judgement from those who think it’s irresponsible that you’re letting them play a sport. At the end of the day, the decision has to be made ‘in-house.’ If you’re making a decision that you know is right for your family, and your kiddos are happy, cared for, and healthy, that’s all that matters.”
For some families, that may mean some sports are off the table, and that disappointment can be hard to manage for both parents and children alike.
“I would encourage all families to make room for the disappointment and for their children to be able to feel their feelings,” says Podowski. “Often, a decision is made, and kids are told to deal with it or get over it — give them time to process. No one, including adults, likes to be disappointed and making space for hard feelings to be felt can go a long way.”
The decision to let your child play a sport can involve a lot of soul-searching and hard conversations for both sides of the fence in a household. Having a support system you can really count on can be pivotal in helping you sort through your emotions and make a decision that feels right for your family.
“Having our own therapist as parents can be a wonderful thing,” Podowski exclaims. “We all need support at different times in our lives and if we find that we are projecting fear, worry and anxiety onto our children and/or partners, it could benefit the entire household to find an outlet. It can also be helpful to have a supportive network of parents to remind us we are not alone in our fears. It is a scary thing to live in fear, so make sure there are actionable items you are consistently taking and you have a great support system in place to help you along the way.”
If you or someone you know is struggling right now, visit Texas Health Behavioral Health or call the helpline at 682-549-7934, which is available 24/7.