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In Kids & Family

Organized kids sports can be rewarding and fun

Recent Milwaukee-area home-grown athletic success stories like Devin Harris, Michael Bennett, Skip Kendall, Chris Witty and Craig Counsell are a blessing and a curse. While it's great to see these local boys and girls shine in the spotlight, it also raises expectations and pressures for local kids and their parents.

One of the reasons these athletes have thrived is that the area full of sports opportunities for children. Sports in the schools, churches and community leagues along with camps and tournaments are more prolific and better organized than ever before. It is nearly impossible to rate or recognize these local programs since there are so many and varied options.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the earliest organized sports for kids was Little League baseball for boys at age 9. When I grew up in the 1970s, the words tee and ball were used together in golf rather than in baseball, and soccer was really only played by the Croatian, Serbian, Italian and Spanish kids. It was a time when mainly boys played pick-up games on the playgrounds, yards and streets of the neighborhood.

Competitive sports has grown exponentially and changed dramatically since then. It is not unusual for today's kids in Milwaukee to start playing organized sports like soccer or tee-ball as early as age five or six. Regardless of effects on Title IX, young girls have worked to earn their place in organized sports and are increasingly competitive with their male counterparts. While the Milwaukee-area hasn't produced its share of big-time female sports stars yet, local girls' programs are thriving and producing many scholarship athletes.

Having played in, coached and watched more of these games, practices and tournaments than I can count, I would like to offer some hopefully useful advice to local parents, relatives and friends of kids who are either participating, or considering participating in youth sports.

Have fun with a purpose

It's a great joy to watch a child smile, especially when they're competing well, having fun with their team and succeeding. There is also nothing worse than watching a child playing a sport that they either don't like, or don't consider fun. It's easy to have fun when you're winning, but there are lessons to be learned just from playing a sport. In many cases with kids' sports, the "most improved player" means more to a team than the "most valuable player."

Pick and choose sports and leagues

With so many local choices for kids, it's easy to try different sports over time to see what works best and what they like. Some kids specialize in sports too early and realize it when it's too late. Remember, Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters are the exception, not the rule.

Keep the age in mind

While there's nothing wrong with kids starting sports early, I believe adults must constantly remind themselves what is really important in sports, especially at younger ages. Kids should start out learning the fundamentals of a game before they learn how to win. I've often noticed way too much emphasis put on winning at all costs in sports with kids as young as six or seven. While many kids are naturally competitive, the level of emphasis on winning should start slowly and increase with age. By the time they reach middle school, things can get more competitive.

Too much, too young

I've seen many a good kid and potentially great athlete grow tired of a sport they may have once loved due to overexposure. Again, an eight-year-old shouldn't be playing 30 or 40 games of any sport in a year. While they may improve and even stand out, it doesn't mean anything if the kid is sick of the sport by middle school. Also, since children mature differently, things can change drastically in a short time.

Don't live through them

It's a cliche that too often plays out realistically as parents live vicariously through their kids' sports. It's natural to want our kids to succeed in a life that may include sports. However, it can lead to too much pressure on a child. So, don't live out your sports or lack of sporting life through your children.


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