High blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, obesity: In his job as
co-director of the Mayo Clinic's Sports Medicine Center, Dr. Ed
Laskowski sees them all. Even more alarming, though, is the fact
that Laskowski isn't talking about adult patients. He's talking
"Years ago, kids were just more active," Laskowski says. "They
may not have been on a traveling soccer team, but they just spent
more time outside playing."
By now it's no no secret that most kids aren't getting as much
physical activity as they need. Both First Lady Michelle
Obama and the National Football League have launched
well-publicized campaigns to encourage children-and their
parents-to get moving.
There's good reason, Laskowski says. An overweight child has a
70-80 percent chance of turning into an obese adult, thereby
increasing his or her risk of developing myriad chronic
While incorporating physical activity can be as simple as taking
time for a walk or a pickup game of basketball in the driveway,
busy routines and unpredictable Chicago weather can get in the way
of even the most well-intentioned families. What's more, it's not
always safe to roam the neighborhood after school, looking for
friends who like to shoot hoops.
A sport or organized physical activity can turn into a regular
routine, one of the keys to accomplishing anything in a busy
"Sports are the outdoor classroom of life," says John Engh,
chief operating officer of the National Alliance for Youth Sports.
"Sports help form children's attitudes, mold their values and
define their character. They teach the importance of teamwork,
playing by the rules, handling winning with class and losing with
Here are some tips for introducing your child to a new sport-and
reaping some of those benefits in the process.
Should your kids learn to dribble a basketball or do a
cartwheel? If they are old enough to make an informed decision, let
them choose, says Leah Friedman, director of junior development for
Chicago's Midtown Tennis Club.
"It's never a good idea to force your kids to do something," she
says. "Kids will tell you what they want to do."
Attend a game or match at a local college or high school to get
a first-hand glimpse of how different sports are played, Friedman
suggests, and whether they might be a good fit for your family. In
many cases, admission to these events is inexpensive or even
If your child needs help choosing, consider her personality. Is
she an extrovert who would thrive as part of a team or an introvert
who'd prefer to lose herself underwater in the private world of a
In Minnesota, where Laskowski and his family live, "hockey is
huge," he says, but that doesn't mean it's right for everyone. His
two daughters didn't want to play or join the neighborhood soccer
team. But they were riveted when a North Carolina clogger moved to
town and began offering Irish dance lessons.
"That's what they're wired to do and they get great exercise in
the process," he says.
Once you and your child have tentatively settled on a sport,
check out coaches and practices. Look for a positive environment
and responsible adults who value each child's contribution. Ask
whether each player gets equal playing time.
Summer camps or sports sampler programs offered at health clubs
and by park districts can be good, inexpensive ways to check out a
variety of sports, suggests Kristy Roherty, the Elmhurst YMCA's
Roherty often allows new students to try the first class for
free. It doesn't hurt to ask about this policy, she says.
"Sometimes one class is all you need to see that something is
right-or not right-for you."
When considering the options, give thought to unconventional
choices. The most popular sport in your town may not fit your
child. Béa Rashid, director of Dance Center Evanston, was never
interested in team sports as a child, but found her lifelong
calling in a dance studio.
An example of thinking outside the box: Her Evanston studio's
offerings include a popular "Just for Boys" class, designed to
introduce male movers to a variety of dance styles, including
classical and hip-hop.
You've never made a layup, done a plié or studied tae kwon do.
Think you have nothing to teach your kids? Wrong, says Cheryl
Richardson, senior manager of physical education for the National
Association for Sport and Physical Education.
Richardson says the worse you are at a sport, the better it
actually can be for your child's learning curve. Seeing a parent
struggle to master new skills can be confidence boosting for
kids-and hilarious for the entire family.
Listen at practice to see what's being covered, or ask the coach
for skills to practice. Invite a teammate over for a "practice
playdate" to work on new techniques or have your athlete try
teaching the sport to a younger sibling.
Learning a new skill can be an intimidating experience. Seeing
that you are willing to put ego aside and try with them might just
give your children the encouragement they need.
Richardson coached basketball for 13 years and played at the
college level. So she was dismayed when her two children cried in
the car on the way to their basketball practice, even though they
had agreed to play.
"Look for something positive about the activity," she says,
"even if it's just the after-game snack or the fun time spent with
While Richardson's children have never become elite athletes,
they still love to play informal games with friends.
During practice and at games, keep things fun and low-key by
refusing to buy into competitive hype, says Engh.
Informal neighborhood and health club leagues or intramural
organizations often provide a friendly environment where children
of all levels can learn to play.
"Children at the beginning levels of sports need supportive
parents who are more concerned with making sure they have fun and
less concerned with how many goals they've scored or the number of
hits they've collected," Engh says.
Kari Richardson is a freelance writer who lives in Naperville with her husband, 7-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.
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