Kids and Sports: What you need to know

Hedy Behzadi began his coaching career over 20 years ago because he didn’t like the way coaches were treating his young son. “The way they coached was too competitive,” he says. “They didn’t let my son play at all. Seventy percent of kids quit the sport they love due to coaches’ behavior.”

Coach Hedy, as he is known at Whiteside Recreational Center, says that structured physical activity for young children should be a fun learning experience where all children are encouraged to participate at their own ability level.

Coach Hedy’s flag football, soccer, basketball and T-ball co-ed teams for 3- to 5-year-olds often have a waiting list. Over the years, he has taught at five different Tulsa parks, but has been forced to scale back on his coaching due to a battle with cancer. His illness, however, has not dampened his cheerful spirit and love for coaching children. Parents who remember Coach Hedy from their childhood are now bringing their own children to his classes.

Dani Caughern’s daughter Bella, age 3 1/2, took T-ball with Coach Hedy in the spring and is currently in flag football.

“It’s so fast-paced,” Dani explains as she watches Bella play with her dad in the Whiteside gym. “They don’t get bored, and it’s a new experience. I just want to expose Bella to each of the sports, and it’s exactly the kind of program you want it to be. Bella recognizes different sports on TV now, and she feels like she can master a skill.”

Dani’s goal is for Bella to be comfortable and confident enough with her foundation in skills from Coach Hedy that she will choose to continue to be active as she gets older.

Doug Sawyer drives his son Doug, II, from Broken Arrow for Coach Hedy’s classes.

“Coach Hedy combines real skills with fun, and he makes sure everybody gets a ball,” Doug says. “He takes time with every child and teaches kids on their level.”

Bryndle Jameson’s son Brendan, 9, has been with Coach Hedy since Brendan was 3.

“He’s the most wonderful man ever,” Bryndle says. “He’s so fun-loving and such an advocate for children. The kids are learning body skills, great social skills and they feel safe, so they’ll be more apt to venture out and try new things.”

The Tulsa Parks sports classes introduce children from as young as age 3 to sports such as T-ball, soccer, gymnastics, tennis or martial arts in an affordable, age-appropriate way. Class length varies, depending on the age of the child, and some preschool classes require parent participation.

Dr. David Barney, associate professor, School of Applied Health & Educational Psychology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, says that a successful physical education program for young children should build a foundation for a lifetime of physical activity. It should also be non-competitive, involve all the children, and work on a variety of motor skills such as jumping, skipping, hopping and throwing.
“Research tells us that children should be getting an hour of physical activity a day at a minimum,” Dr. Barney says. “In a good program teachers are prepared in their planning. There’s a purpose and objective and the kids are learning something.”

Because of the obesity epidemic in the United States, many preschools are being proactive in incorporating physical education classes into their programs. By building physical skills, body awareness and healthy habits, early childhood educators hope to lay the foundation for a healthy lifestyle. One such program is Amazing Athletes, a Tulsa sports-based preschool program owned by Michael Amberg.

Amberg says the class teaches young children the fundamentals of nine different sports, such as lacrosse, hockey, golf and football. Most of the classes are held in private preschools in Tulsa and surrounding communities, and there is also an after school program through Jenks Community Schools.
“The developmental side is the main thing,” Amberg says. “Skipping, galloping, hand-eye coordination – these developmental skills help with concentration, reading and cognitive development.”

Amberg says that sessions are short, 35 to 40 minutes, and that everyone participates.

“We start off with stretching, cardio and muscle tone where they learn about their muscle groups. We don’t play an actual game. It’s just about learning the basics,” he says. “We’re going to teach the kids how to run bases, how to hold the bat, and the hope is that they get exposed to all the sports.”
Children who are less out-going than some of their peers gain confidence, Amberg says, because classes are fun, age-appropriate and non-competitive.

Dr. Barney supports Amberg’s assertion that physical education, besides skill-building, also teaches children social interaction and improves cognitive skills.

“Kids have to learn how to work together toward a common goal, to follow an authority figure such as a teacher or coach,” Barney says, “and they learn to strategize and learn rules of games.”

In a school setting, teachers say that physical education classes help children come back to the classroom more focused and ready to learn.

Barney cautions that competition in early elementary school should not be a goal. An overly competitive program at an early age can create negative experiences for children, and they may forego sports altogether. Early sports programs should foster a positive attitude in children toward physical fitness, which they will carry with them into adulthood.

“We want to teach them basic skills that they will carry with them into middle and high school where they can be on teams,” Barney says. “You don’t want to play 5 on 5 basketball in elementary school. The goal is to make learning the physical skills enjoyable, so they’re kind of hooked on them.”

Barney says that parents may need to alter their own expectations of what sports programs should look like for young children. “Kids shouldn’t be picking teams, and there shouldn’t be boys versus girls,” he says. “I think co-ed teams are good for elementary kids. The kids don’t care. Usually, it’s the parents who care.”

Barney says that a good rule of thumb for children in grades kindergarten through 3rd grade is a broad, general experience that will build a solid foundation of skills and provide a positive experience. In 4th and 5th grades, more specific activities such as 3 on 3 basketball can be introduced, and in middle school and high school, students are ready to play more structured sports.

From a medical standpoint, Dr. Keith Stanley, a physician at Tulsa Bone & Joint Associates, and a specialist in sports medicine, says that broad-based sports programs that offer variety are healthier for young children than those that are too specific and specialized.

“In the current society,” Dr. Stanley says, “I see a lot of overuse injuries — tendonitis, stress fractures – from too much activity. We have kids who are playing competitive sports constantly, and then we have those who aren’t doing much of anything, and not very many kids in the middle. We need more kids in the middle.”

Dr. Stanley says that sports used to be seasonal, where children would play a spring sport, have a break, then play another type of sport or activity. Sports are now year round, so that some children are even playing two high intensity sports at the same time with no break. He points out that such high intensity sports for young people can create problems such as arthritis in adulthood.

“We’re also seeing that early over-use of anti-inflammatories for aches and pains in children and youth is increasing the number of patients with kidney and liver problems.”

Another factor contributing to overuse injury is parents who push their children into too much training.
“The coaches are frustrated because they have a training program in place for the players and parents push the kids by putting them into extra training programs on the side.”

And if those parents are using those training programs to build muscle on pre-prubescent children, then they may as well give up.

“Not all 10- and 12-year-olds are at the same stage of physical development,” Dr. Stanley points out, “so all children can’t be treated the same way in athletic or physical education programs. Strength training won’t develop muscle until they go through puberty. While they may develop coordination, technique and muscle memory, no matter how much weight they lift, they won’t build muscle. Children who are still growing are also more prone to injury with weight and resistance programs.”

Dr. Stanley also sees parent-coached teams who may be putting children into unhealthy, perhaps even risky, situations on the field or in practice. Coaches and parents need to be aware of their motives, he says, and in the occasional situation when a coach is out of control, parents need to speak up.

“Youth sports has gotten away from the goal of skill development to winning,” Dr. Stanley says. “That puts you in a higher risk category. For example, if a player is injured, a coach or parent who is intent on winning will put the child back in the game when the child really needs to sit out and rest. That Little League trophy isn’t so important in the bigger scheme of life.”

Barney’s recommendation to parents is that if children want to play specific sports in upper elementary school and beyond, it should come from the child, not the parent pressuring the child. Barney’s main advice to parents is to focus on active family togetherness, life balance and fun rather than competition.
“Go out and play with your children. Turn off the TV and ride bikes together or walk the dog, or go swimming. Besides the activity, you get the parent/child relationship,” Barney says. “Make time for them and you’ll see the dividends. They’re going to remember those things that you do together.”

All of the experts agree that the goal of any sports or physical education program for young children should be to build a foundation of skills in a non-competitive, positive atmosphere that will serve them throughout life.

As Coach Hedy says, “My job is to build children for the future, and to build a good memory for the parents to look back on – a memorable moment. If you took the fun out, it’s nothing.”

A Developmental Approach

Birth through Age 2
Make safe places where children can be active and explore naturally. Provide “tummy time” for young infants. This helps them build neck muscles and gets babies ready for crawling. Provide sturdy, stable furniture that children can hold onto as they are learning to stand. Play with babies and toddlers and let them see what they can do. If a ball goes under a table, let the baby crawl to get it for herself. She will build motor skills and feel proud and satisfied.

Ages 2 through 5
Give children many chances for active play, both indoors and outdoors. Children of this age seem to have lots of energy, but they do tire quickly. Three to five minutes of exercise that makes them breathless several times a day will be good for their hearts.
Keep the atmosphere positive. Fill activities with fun games and music. Tie the activity to other things you’re doing: Crawl like caterpillars or climb like monkeys when you are learning about them. Avoid games that involve winning and losing. Children of this age are sensitive to failure and may not like the game because of the competition.

Ages 6 through 8
Running games such as tag and capture-the-flag are exciting and get kids moving. Older children in this age group are ready to begin exploring team sports. Attitude is more important than performance. A positive approach will help children feel good about sports and more likely to remain active throughout their lives. It is natural for children of all ages to be accident-prone, since their motor skills are still developing. Try not to make children worry about getting hurt by being too protective. The goal of playing sports it to have fun, enjoy friends and blow off steam.

These are the typical stages of developmental readiness for sports:

* Early childhood (ages 2-5 years). The best sports at this stage emphasize fundamental skills with minimum variation. Activities should allow children to learn by trial and error with minimal instruction. Competition is mostly a distraction for children more interested in the dandelion on the field than the game at hand. Vision is not fully mature until about age 6 or 7 years, so children can have trouble with tracking or gauging the speed of moving objects.
* Middle childhood (ages 6-9 years). Most children can start learning transitional skills—variations on the basics, such as throwing the ball in a different direction. Motor skills improve, posture and balance become automatic, and reaction time gets faster. At this age, children still have a short attention span and limited cognitive abilities for sports that require extensive memory and rapid decision-making. Entry-level soccer and baseball are appropriate if the focus is on getting children interested in sports.
* Late childhood (ages 10-12). At this stage, children can improve transitional skills and master complex motor skills, but growth spurts can bring physical and emotional changes. They can play sports involving strategies and teamwork.