Should You Make Your Child Play Sports? There's No Easy Answer

Organized athletics have benefits beyond just staying active. Parents, a commissioner and a psychologist weigh in on forcing kids to participate.

Brooke Preston
The topic of whether to make children play sports is hotly debated.

On any fall weeknight, city parks and recreation fields across Central Ohio transform into a colorful and sprawling sea of youth sports matches. Sign-up flyers come home in your child’s backpack. Yard signs pepper busy intersections. Even local churches and other houses of worship play host to junior basketball leagues. Here in the athletics-minded Midwest, youth sports can begin to feel like a bit of an imperative. 

As fall sports kick into high gear, the same question arises for many families: Should parents make their children try a sport? We asked a local mom, a coach/youth league board member and a pediatric psychologist with a sports concentration for their opinions. The answer, not surprisingly, isn’t as simple as “yes” or “no.” 

Youth teams—while not without their critics for everything from costs to concussion protocols—are an easy sell for many families because they offer life lessons, exercise and personal growth in a generally fun and relatively accessible package. “Sports are great for social and emotional development, especially at an early age,” says Catherine Butz, Ph.D., clinical director for pediatric psychology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. 

Tim O’Leary, a softball commissioner and board member for the North Columbus Sports league, agrees. “[Students in youth sports] learn hard work pays off and a sense of discipline. They experience teamwork. They build lifelong relationships and learn how to handle the ups and downs, or wins and losses, of life,” says O’Leary, who is also a softball coach and parent. 

Be Flexible 

For many kids, sports are fun and fulfilling. However, if students aren’t enjoying themselves, when should parents consider calling it quits? That answer can vary significantly, even within a single family. 

Westerville parent and teacher Libby Schlagbaum grew up playing softball, volleyball and basketball and running track. “I enjoyed sports. That’s where I made my friends, and I believe I still have a healthy, active lifestyle because I participated in sports,” she says.  

Understandably, she hoped her four children would have similarly fulfilling and formative experiences. There was only one snag: a lack of interest. “We enrolled our three oldest kids in a recreational soccer league when they turned 4. None were initially enthusiastic. All my kids are shy, so it’s a balance of ‘this will help you meet people,’ but also them not wanting to because they’re shy,” Schlagbaum says.  

While none was gung-ho at first, a curious thing happened: Over time, three very different outcomes played out. The oldest eventually warmed up to recreational soccer as his skill level improved. He stuck with it and now enjoys playing on his high school team. 

The second-oldest child left soccer for volleyball. However, being relatively new to the sport, they didn’t make the school team—leaving few options to play in a competitive setting. 

The third sibling stuck with soccer for a few years, but never warmed to it. Schlagbaum and her husband agreed to let him move on. “I’ll say, ‘Here’s this [sport], do you want to do it?’ And they will say yes or no.” Lacrosse was tried but not particularly beloved; next up is archery. 

Butz encourages families to dabble and find their own path. “It’s good to expose kids to different experiences in general. They don’t know what they don’t know,” she says. “Different sports or areas may be more competitive than others, so maybe if a child isn’t feeling confident in one of the most popular sports, maybe you try something that isn’t.” 

Schlagbaum learned it can be difficult to find recreational classes and activities for older kids outside of summer camps or one-time events, making families’ decisions even trickier. It can also be a challenge to replace the physical activity that is built into sports.  

Butz emphasizes that parents should try to encourage kids who opt out of sports to stay physically active, but to understand that many of the other lessons and benefits can be found in artistic or other group activities. “As long as they’re finding an outlet for getting that piece, and finding that social-emotional development elsewhere, I think that’s the important thing.” 

O’Leary didn’t require his children to play sports, strictly speaking. “It was more like ‘strongly encouraged’ them,” he says. When coaching, he gives other parents the same advice. “If the child is completely against playing a sport, don’t force them. They may not have a good experience. Sports isn’t life and death … it’s supposed to be fun, educational and a growing experience. The focus can be on being a part of a team and building comradery.” 

Keep It Positive 

While a child’s attitude toward a sport may ebb and flow, Butz notes that interest is a crucial ingredient. “A child will not do as well at a sport or activity if they’re not loving it, if there’s a stress perception attached to it. All kids need to feel that they are competent, that is key.” 

In O’Leary’s experience, too much intensity or excessive pressure from parents can also sour kids on a sport. “I have seen parents want it more than their kids, and it saddens me. Let the kid have fun and encourage them, keeping it all positive. Don’t try to live vicariously through your child.” 

Butz notes that the national conversation around Simone Biles temporarily stepping back from the Olympics to focus on her mental health is the perfect opportunity to remind parents that, regardless of skill level, athletics don’t make anyone superhuman. “Kids are human, like we all are. Parents need to be able to roll with the idea that a child will show up differently—emotionally and even physically—on any given day,” she says. 

While parents may want their kids to, say, finish out a sports season to teach lessons about grit and commitment, it ultimately comes down to good communication. “As kids get older, and if they are expressing dissatisfaction, that’s a different conversation. Parents need to be a sounding board,” Butz says. 

The Schlagbaums’ fourth child is now 4—the age at which the older siblings began their sports journeys. “I asked her if she’d like to do soccer and she said, ‘No!’ And I don’t know if it’s because she’s the last one, but I was just like, ‘OK!’ Schlagbaum says with a laugh. “It’s always a balance of interest, skill level, cost, schedules, how many children there are in the family. So many factors.” 

No matter their chosen interest, if your kids do decide to play sports, don’t forget: In your desire to coach them toward greatness, don’t forget to be their biggest fan. 

This story is from the Fall 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.