THURSDAY, Oct. 13, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Every afternoon and weekend, children in uniform and parents toting sports gear, water bottles and lawn chairs converge on America's fields for soccer, baseball and football games.
Pretty much everyone agrees that the nation's kids are in dire need of more physical activity and that organized sports can help achieve that. Yet, some experts warn that adult attitudes about winning and competition are taking the fun out of youth sports, and driving too many kids to drop out too soon.
Though an estimated 30 million children played on youth league teams last year, many kids no longer participate when they reach middle and high school, experts say. That not only puts kids at risk of gaining weight and becoming sedentary adults, but robs them of one of the great joys of living: movement.
"If parents would just relax a little bit, let the child be a child, and not try to make that child be an adult, you are going to give them the gift of moving for life," said Sandra Sims, an associate professor in the human studies department at University of Alabama Birmingham, who spent two decades as a middle and high school coach and physical education teacher.
So what's the explanation for kids' loss of interest?
Some blame goes to overzealous parents who scream at referees and pressure kids to work toward a college scholarship before they've learned to tie their own cleats, experts say.
But even more common issues, they say, are poor coaching, societal attitudes that encourage winning at all costs and a push to have children specialize in one sport too soon.
"Everything that you read states students are leaving because it's not fun anymore. The push seems to be, 'Let's get them going real early in one sport.' For a small majority of students, that kid that is a Tiger Woods or the elite athlete, that works. But it doesn't work for most students," Sims said.
Experts offered these tips for parents and coaches to keep the fun in the game.
- Winning isn't everything: Sims has coached volleyball, basketball, tennis and women's power lifting. She's heard kids call themselves "losers" when they don't win. That, she said, "is a great opportunity for me to explain what winning is. Is winning always being first? Is it always going to be about the score? In my opinion, winning is a journey. It's giving your best."
- Don't compare one player to others: Keep the focus on the child doing his or her personal best, rather than how the child measures up to others.
- No kid should be a bench warmer: Elementary and middle school is way too early to have second-string players, Sims said, and a skilled coach looks for ways to make sure all kids get something out of playing. "No matter if it's Little League or high school, winning is secondary and athletes are first." Help them feel included and worthy.
- Try several sports: If soccer or basketball isn't your child's thing, maybe dance or swimming will suit them better. "There are so many things that kids can play. Our job is to help them find the love of movement," Sims said.
- Don't start them too young: Opinions differ on the right age to start kids in organized sports, with some recommending delaying until kids are 6 or 8. No matter when a child starts, don't treat the child as a "mini-adult" who is being groomed for a professional career, Sims said.
- Keep it fun: "A few adults will dutifully go to the gym. But kids aren't going to do that. It's got to be fun," said Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College who studies the role of play in child development.
- Don't use physical activity as punishment: Ever had a coach who made players run laps for being late to practice, or do push-ups for a poor play? That's punishing through exercise, Sims said, and is always a bad idea.
- Show grace in winning and losing: "In my generation, there was a great deal of emphasis on the proper way to conduct oneself, especially towards members of the other team -- after losing, congratulating them for a win, while remaining modest after winning," said Peter LaFreniere, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Maine. "Judging from what I see on TV, we need more emphasis on this today. Being a good sport is a step toward being a good citizen. And the U.S. needs more civility in both."
- Don't specialize too soon: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children shouldn't specialize in a single sport before adolescence, while the National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that children under age 15 participate in multiple sports and informal activities rather than specializing. This can help prevent overuse injuries, as well as help kids develop skills in more than one activity. That way, if a child doesn't make the high school soccer team, they can still play volleyball in the church league or basketball in a rec league.
- Kids need time to play off the field: Research suggests that unstructured playtime -- when kids decide what they want to do and make up their own rules with their friends -- is crucial to helping children learn the social skills they need to become independent adults who can cooperate and get along with others. That's not something they learn when a coach, referee or parent is directing the activity, Gray said. "Children are meant to get physical activity by chasing each other around, having fun, playing monsters, not by running laps or climbing ropes where the whole class is watching them and someone is grading them and if they fail they feel ashamed never want to do it again," he said. "That sucks the fun out of physical endeavors." Make sure kids get opportunities for "free play."
University of Michigan has information on youth sports safety.