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Ask an Expert: How to get my daughter into organized sports?

Q. My third grade daughter has no interest in organized sports. I think it’d be great if she’d play soccer or basketball, or whatever but she doesn’t want to. I’m not sure it’s because she perceives these as “boy” sports or what. She pretty much just loves running around and playing on the playground with friends. Do you have tips on how I can get her to take more risks with physical exercise and sports?

A. This is a great question, and we should look at the psychology of fitness as well. Kids really gravitate toward what they see as fun, and that’s different for each child. In addition, not all kids feel the same pull toward playing team sports that their parents enjoyed when they were kids. Many times a parent was a terrific athlete and loved X (football, basketball, track, volleyball) but their kids can’t stomach the thought of even trying those same sports. How can you miss what you do not know or understand? You can’t.

Here are some tips:

  • Stop trying to get her to play organized team sports if she truly has no interest. It’s an uphill battle and usually nobody wins.
  • Expand the activities she likes.
  • Sign her up for a few different individual sports with after-school or short, six- to eight-week programs with her buy-in. “Sweetie, you’re going to need to pick two extra activities to try this year…Here are the options.”

There are usually a variety of after-school choices (martial arts, gymnastics, even fencing) and you can invite her to pick a couple with her friends. Or, most dance, gymnastics, or martial arts schools will offer a trial program.

On the psychology front, each of us has different attributes and motivations. Your daughter sounds less like someone who wants to take risks, be adventurous, and try new things and more like someone who would benefit from feeling safe, having fun, being social, and adding onto what’s already comfortable.

What the heck does that mean?

Well, you wouldn’t necessarily begin training for a marathon by running 10 miles, would you? Nor would you start learning to play volleyball by signing up for a tournament. Remember that great movie, What About Bob? Think baby steps. Take things that she already enjoys doing, and make them a bit more challenging or increase the amount of time she does them.

Some kids feel an automatic distrust of the unknown. They don’t like to do things that could create stress,failure or disappointment. They are what I’d call “safe zone” kind of kids. They want something that feels safe, fun or comfortable before they give it a shot.

Oftentimes in martial arts classes I’ll have a parent who really wants their child to do martial arts, expecting the kids to just jump right in. A parent thinks, “It’d be so great for Katie to learn confidence and break out of her shell.” But Katie shows up to this new place, with all this new stimulus and she’s not so sure it looks safe – or like fun. I explain to these parents that children have their own approach to new activities and THEY ARE ALL OK. There are many types of children and their approaches to physical exercise and fitness vary.

The types of young people I work with are:

  • Ready to jump into a new class.
  • Want to watch a couple classes before they attempt it.
  • May want to watch part of a class and then join in when it looks like fun (not work), it feels safe and they know what to expect.
  • May want you or a friend to do the class with her the first few times.
  • Or she may watch it and choose not to participate at all right now. The last thing a “safe zone” kid needs is a parent’s stress and the feeling that they’re disappointing them.

So, what’s the best way to get a child to take more risks?

  • Build on success or things they already enjoy.
  • If a kid isn’t a risk taker, then try to decrease the risks in of their mind.
  • And try to squelch your own attachment to what they choose. This is critical, but can be very difficult.
  • If your child is stopped by the idea of challenge, then make it seem easier.

As you can see, it’s all in the approach. If your daughter loves running around on the playground, then I’d work on creating some games on the playground that she can play with her friends. Races, running around, teams, tag. These are all great ways to easily incorporate fitness. A child should typically spend 45 to 60 minutes a day getting some type of exercise, and running around on a playground could count toward that.

I hope this helps you release some of the pressure you feel about getting your daughter to do sports, and allows her the chance to try some things – without fear – that she may just fall in love with. For more fit facts, please visit my website at:

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