Starting kids in sports

For many of us, the start of warm weather means the return of beloved outdoor activities like walking, running, biking or hiking. For families with young children, finally getting outside to play can feel like a breath of (literal) fresh air after a winter spent cooped up indoors.

Many families choose to enroll their little ones in recreational sports in part to keep their children busy, but recreational sports do more for kids than simply keeping them occupied. The benefits of recreational sports for children include developing or strengthening fine motor and kinesthetic skills, learning to work with others as a part of a team and being exposed to different games and activities. When you factor in the added benefits of being outdoors and being able to socialize with other parents on the sidelines, youth sports are a very attractive option for young families looking to fill their longer springtime evenings. But with so many options, how does a family go about choosing the best sport or league for their child? And once a family has picked an activity, what things should they expect as they enter the wide world of youth sports here in the Springfield area?

One question that many families have when they decide to enroll their children in sports programming is: Which sport should I choose? Alexis Richie, director of youth and adult recreational soccer for the Springfield Area Soccer Association (SASA), explained that some families have an easier time with this question than others. Richie said the home environment is really important to kids' decisions. "If kids take to a sport, it's usually because a parent or an older sibling takes to a sport."

For example, as a lifelong soccer player herself, it made sense to Richie that her children would also try youth soccer. But what about for families for whom involvement in sports ended decades ago, or for parents whose preferred leisure activities aren't team sports, such as biking or running? Richie explained that, for some families, trial and error is key to thriving in youth sports. Just because your child starts their sports career on a baseball team doesn't mean they won't eventually pivot to soccer or basketball or gymnastics. Every sport uses and develops a different motor skill, so it's always worth exposing your child to something new if your first attempt doesn't stick.

Many families, especially those with toddlers, will recognize the quandary of what to do if your child doesn't seem to want to participate in sports right away. We have all either been or seen the parent whose child presented varying degrees of stubbornness, difficulty or flat-out refusal to leave the sidelines. This can be super frustrating and confusing for families, particularly if this is your child's first team or activity.

Playpen Sports, which is new to the Springfield area as of March, works with toddlers ages 2 to 5 years old to acclimate children to their sport, team and coaches slowly. Meg Brewer, marketing manager, explained that the pandemic has definitely affected toddlers' social skills, and that their coaching staff is completely prepared to handle everything from shyness to tantrums. Says Brewer, "Our coaches are well-trained to know how toddlers work. We like to keep it light and fun, and we want kids' first experiences with sports to be fun."

Richie agreed that for many families just starting out with youth sports, separation anxiety will happen. Richie advises parents to be patient as their child gets used to this new environment. The smallest SASA athletes are learning to play the game, but coaches will equally emphasize fun.

Says Richie, "It will look like the basics, so patience is a virtue. The kids should be having fun, most of all!"

Pamela Savage is a freelance writer in Springfield who has signed both of her children up for their first soccer teams this spring.