A few months ago, my 7-year-old son discovered dubstep and the moves that go along with it, turning our living room into an episode of "World of Dance." Our 9-year-old daughter is a dancer, so my son has also learned a thing or two from the studio. But when he started perfecting his electronic techno dance moves nightly, we knew it was a full-blown obsession.
When he was 6, he turned expert in BMX racing (the highest level he can achieve for his age). But instead of pushing him to go even farther, my husband and I backed off. We wanted the drive to compete to come from him, not us.
In fact, he went through a two-month period where he did not want to race, and my husband and I knew we had two choices: back off and let him return to the track when he was ready, or tell him he had to go, no matter what, and risk him quitting for good. When questioned about our decision by others, we always gave the same answer: "The riding's up to him. If he wants it (to be the best in his age group), he'll go after it."
In time, he returned to the track and found joy for the sport in his heart. He realized that getting on his bike and racing every weekend was about his desire to compete and he learned that crossing the finish was his accomplishment.
He still races his BMX bike, just like he throws a football with a killer spiral, kicks the soccer ball hundreds of times against the fence and hits every possible object with the baseball bat. And when it's time to pick what he loves, dubstep dancing wins every time.
I recently spoke with John O'Sullivan from Changing the Game Project, an initiative to ensure that we return youth sports to our children. He told me there were three ingredients to long-term motivation and participation in youth sports and activities: ownership/autonomy, enjoyment and intrinsic motivation.
Simply stated, it's not our job as parents to discover what our children are passionate about. That job belongs to them. We need to focus on their interests and try not to impose our own. After all, one of the best gifts we can give our children is to allow them to find what truly makes them smile.
Importance of choice for kids
If recent statistics are any indication of what the future of youth sports may look like, we're in trouble.
"Seventy percent of kids quit organized sports by the age of 13," says O'Sullivan. "Kids quit for a variety of reasons, but a lot of kids quit because they never had ownership in the sport they participated in."
Maureen McNulty of Bainbridge Island, Washington, a veteran middle and high school teacher and coach for many of the 29 years she has been in education, has also seen this trend of quitting when it comes to youth sports. "As a coach, one of the hardest things to watch is when the athlete has no passion or drive, even when they are really good at the sport," says McNulty.
"You see that the child clearly doesn't like the sport, but the parent(s) do, so they keep pushing; thinking that more time will make it better," she says. "So the child continues to play because they don't want to disappoint their parents."
Parental motivation only goes so far, though. "As they get older it doesn't matter how good the child is, they get tired of the pushing and decide that they don't like the sport and may quit playing all together," says McNulty.
And this is exactly where the system is broken. Because let's be honest, most kids -- especially young kids -- play sports or participate in an activity to try their best and have fun. And while scoring points or taking a higher place does contribute to their enjoyment, it's not what keeps them coming back for more.
In fact, a 2014 George Washington University study found that 9 of 10 kids said "fun" is the main reason they participate. The author of that study also asked kids what made the sports "fun" and responses such as: trying your best, getting playing time, getting along with teammates, and being active, made the top six out of 81 responses.
Guess what No. 48 was? Winning. That's right, our kids are putting winning way farther down the list than the adults. Maybe it's time we start listening to them when it comes to changing the game and face of youth sports.
A few tips for parents
"Your role as parents is to help your kids find their passion, instead of determining it for them," says O'Sullivan.
He believes that you should expose your kids early on to a variety of different sports and activities so they can find the things they love. "If you grew up playing soccer, for example, and loved it, why wouldn't you want your child to also find something that they love just as much," he asks. We have to always remember that this is about them, not us.
And O'Sullivan recommends that parents focus on one particular sentence when talking with their kids at competitions and events: "I love to watch you play." Five simple words that have the power to show our children that we believe in them, we're proud of them, and we love them. Words we can all live by.
Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer with degrees in exercise science and counseling. Her writing focuses on health, mental health, parenting, education and fitness.