Almost every kid grows up playing sports. Even if they don’t like it, everyone plays soccer and t-ball for at least one season. Parents know it’s beneficial for their child’s development. Plus, it keeps the child busy in a constructive, healthy manner, giving the parents a break. It’s a win-win for everybody involved.
One benefit to playing team sports as a child is the long-term athletic development it creates. Long-term athleticism may not be at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts when signing up for t-ball, but hear me out. Even if a child is clearly not the next Lebron James and has no desire to continue an athletic career, there are life-long benefits to sport. They develop what is called motor control. Think of motor control as coordination. Learning to swing a bat or dribble a basketball is something you may never need to do as an adult. However, building the capacity to do so will develop total body coordination, making other things easier later in life. Everyone needs athleticism, whether you are an athlete or not. Developing reasonable motor control as a child will reduce the likelihood of injuries and chronic pain as adults. That’s one of the beautiful things about youth sports. They learn and develop so much mentally and physically in ways that will serve them well in life.
That being said, I highly encourage every parent to put their child into various sports. It’s perfectly ok if they don’t enjoy a particular one. Play basketball for one season. Learn to dribble and pass a ball. Life skills learned. Learn to throw a baseball, kick a ball where you want it to go, or learn to swim! Attaining such skills will create a healthy, skilled, well-rounded kid and adult.
Obesity and Motor Control
The greatest enemy to developing these skills and motor control is obesity. This is hard for some parents to hear, but obesity is never ok for kids. Even if you think your kid is the next great lineman for the Packers, being overweight is detrimental to athletic development for children.
Research shows that severe obesity in children can cause an 11-59% motor control deficit. This can consequently slow down or even halt athletic development. This can alter a child’s physical development negatively, dramatically increasing the likelihood of a life of pain and injuries when they’re older. It also dramatically increases the risk of lifelong obesity and its many related diseases.
We’ve established the importance of motor control for all kids. Whether they have athletic aspirations or not, sports are a fantastic way to develop motor control. I’d even go as far as to say they are vital for optimal development in children.
With that, I’d recommend that every child plays at least three seasons of two sports. Three seasons should give the child a fair amount of proficiency in the sport. This should be sufficient to develop enough skills to be a more athletic and healthier adult.
Three seasons of two sports are the minimum. The more sports, the better. But don’t ever play the same sport year-round. No child or adult should play soccer, baseball, basketball, or any sport in the fall, winter, spring, and summer. That’s largely why there’s been a massive spike in youth sports injuries over the past few decades. That’s for another article. Just don’t do any one sport year-round. Ever. Please!
Bigger Isn’t Better
We’ve also established that obesity is never an advantage to a child. The long-term negative consequences are almost guaranteed. Bigger kids tend to be the better players at young ages, as their weight can give them an advantage in most sports. This can provide parents with a wrong idea of their child’s level of athleticism. However, research shows that pound for pound, obese children tend to be weaker than the smaller ones. This trajectory usually continues into adulthood, increasing the likelihood of pain and injuries. The strength advantage is there when they are eight years old but won’t be there at the high school and beyond levels. As they get older and their skills improve, weight advantage matters less and less.
How to Combat Childhood Obesity and Improve Motor Control
Two major factors contribute to childhood obesity:
- lack of activity
Nutrition is a vast topic that is beyond the scope of this article. However, all children should have regular checkups with their doctor. This is the most critical step in combating childhood obesity. Every pediatrician should be concerned about their patients being obese at a young age. Parents should take their advice and seek the help of other specialists when necessary. We’ve highlighted that childhood obesity has zero athletic benefits in the long run, with even more severe consequences inevitable as adults. If a doctor’s advice isn’t helping, seeking the help of a Registered Dietician would be the next necessary step. Nutrition is a complex topic and can be especially difficult with kids. An RD can help immensely.
Moreso than nutrition, parents, should play a more significant and active role in their child’s activity levels. This is another great benefit to sports. Sports are nothing more than organized play to a child. Learning to play a sport will be more beneficial than anything a child can watch on tv. Every parent should take advantage of this.
A study on 7-9-year-old boys showed that a twelve-week plyometric program could dramatically improve motor control. The study was limited to 7-9-year-old boys, but we know the same logic can be applied to all kids of all ages. Plyometrics essentially refers to athletic movements like various types of running, jumping, and catching. Again, sports are dominated by such activity. This will also combat obesity in a fun and enjoyable way for kids.
Raising kids is hard. Having an obese child doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. However, it’s not something that should be ignored or encouraged in the name of athletics. Childhood obesity leads to mild and sometimes severe motor control deficits, which can have many long-term negative impacts in all stages of life. Some strategies:
- Sign them up for sports. They will learn many life skills and make some friends. If they don’t like a particular sport, find another one they may enjoy. They don’t have to do it forever, but it’s a good idea to at least try a variety.
- Get regular medical checkups. Many parents have no idea what their child should weigh or if they’re behind in motor skill development. Monitoring their growth can be vital to keeping your child healthy.
- Seek help when needed. If you learn your child is obese, don’t beat yourself up. Seek professional care from either a doctor or dietician if needed. They will likely have great solutions that your child will comply with.
- Be there. Kids need the presence of a parent to have a healthy relationship with everything discussed in this article. Kids are eager to please their parents. Be there as much as you can to encourage them to be better athletes and overall healthier children. It will serve you and your child well and later in life.