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Ask an Expert: Sparking tween interest in team sports

Q. I am having trouble getting my “tween” interested in organized sports. She loves riding her bike, but has no interest in a team sport. I’d like her to get excited about being on a sports team of some kind in middle school. How can I start changing her attitude now? (or his..)

A. To adults who loved sports as kids, it just seems unimaginable that any kid wouldn’t jump at the chance to play sports. In the health and fitness industry, we know that playing sports is great for kids on many levels. Their test scores are higher. They are healthier. They are more comfortable socially. They learn the value of working with a team. They are less likely to fall into negative habits or in with negative people. The list goes on.

The issue can be one of learning to understand what motivates your tween, and helping them to find those things. Many kids are not natural athletes or “team sports oriented” and they don’t see anything to get excited about. They may have memories of things they weren’t good at doing and think team sports will feel that way. Your tween may not understand they value of trying new things just for the sake of trying.

Part of your job as a parent is to approach your children as separate little individuals with their own set of interests. Study them. See what lights them up.

It’s about learning those things that motivate and inspire your child…and usually they are quite different than what motivates and inspires you. In martial arts we use a concept called “pre-framing.” It’s helping a student consider a positive perception before they allow the negative thought-programming to run their choices.

So, instead of just saying something like, “Well, you are going to play a sport, it won’t kill you,” a parent could find something the tween might find positive about playing sports and discuss it that way. Something like this: “Since you love hanging out with your friends, this is just one other fun thing for you kids to try together. You may have so many laughs learning this sport together…”

Asking the right questions

In asking some simple questions you may uncover some very interesting insights. Try these:

  • Is your tween social. Does he/she have a wide circle of friends?
  • Are they shy or have just one or two close friends?
  • Do they make friends easily or do they wait to check others out first?
  • Is your tween a perfectionist?
  • Do they take it personally when they think they’ve “messed up”?
  • Is he/she likely to try new things in other areas of their life or do they like to play it safe?
  • Has your child ever struggled with their coordination or are they more naturally athletic?

Understanding your answers

Collect your answers to the questions above, and also think about other concerns your child may have about participating in sports. For instance, some kids struggle with how they’ll look if they don’t know how to play that sport. (This is especially common among kids who have success in other areas – they don’t want to feel uncomfortable).

Your child may be highly competitive and hate to lose. Trying a new sport and not being good at it may feel like losing. They think everyone else on that team knows what they’re doing. Your child may think others will tease them or make fun of them. The idea of playing a sport brings up thoughts of being the last one picked, messing up, or looking stupid. Sports look hard, and when you don’t know what to expect that can seem insurmountable. They don’t have anything positive to attach to that sport, we like to build on our successes.

Facing the “dork factor”

They fear the “dork factor.” Each of us has gone through that uncomfortable feeling of feeling like a dork at something new. But until someone says it’s OK to feel that way, we may fight to try to new things.

Children aren’t often taught the value of using mistakes as learning opportunities and they believe if they make a mistake it means there’s something wrong with them.

Some solutions

  • Talk to your tween about these things.
  • See what is really going on with them.
  • Share times when you’ve had struggles with something new and how you overcame them, and how overcoming that challenge helped you in other areas.
  • Create a learning environment where things are “good” or “bad” but “interesting” or “challenging.”
  • Help teach your tween about the value of using our experiences to help us grow and become more of the person we are meant to be.

And let us know how it goes.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.