December 11 2016
It won’t come as a surprise to you that kids are less active these days than they used to be. Our obsession with digital devices is reflected in changes in kids’ activity levels. While parents used to only have to worry about regulating how much TV their kids watched, now they have to compete with tablets, gaming systems, and smartphones. Although technology mostly plays a positive role, it’s having a negative impact on children’s lives in surprising ways.
Kids aged 6–12 were less active through sports in 2015, continuing the trend of declining sports participation. Only 40% of U.S. kids played team sports. The annual ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth found that only 9% of children aged 5–17 meet the guidelines of 60 minutes of heart-pumping physical activity per day. Kids are spending more and more time in sedentary activities and aren’t engaging in physical activity. In 2015, 73% of U.S. adolescents had a smart phone while the average amount of screen time for Canadian high schoolers was 8.2 hours a day. Increased time in front of screens not only affects kids’ relationship with physical activity but also the quality and amount of sleep they’re getting. Jam-packed schedules and more screen time result in restless sleep which leads to irritability, hyperactivity, poor attention, and even depression. Kids need sleep to be motivated to move but kids won’t sleep if they haven’t been moving. We have a vicious cycle where sedentary lifestyles cause symptoms that reinforce sedentary lifestyles. Kids need vigorous physical activity, but for that to do them any good, they also need sleep.
We know that kids enjoy losing themselves in video games, TV and movies, we know they love technology, and we know they’re decreasing their involvement in sports. The question is, what can we do to change the trend.
Listen to your players.
Coaches need to listen to kids’ needs the way that marketing companies do. Listening to what kids enjoy about sedentary activities gives you powerful intel. We all know that physical activity is good for us but that knowledge is not always enough to motivate us to move. Kids want to participate in sports that fit their preferences. Think about how you tailor activities to your own personal preferences. Trail runs over treadmills, hockey versus yoga. Kids have favorites too. If you listen you’ll discover how to motivate kids to participate in sports.
Researchers found that the biggest factor in determining whether kids participated in sports or not was family income. Activity levels were highest for kids from wealthy homes. Listening comes into play here too. Maybe one of your top players has lost interest in the sport because their family can’t afford the equipment. Listening to your players will inform your plan of action. Are there scholarships you can tell them about? Maybe there are free community resources you can recommend to parents. You won’t know unless you listen to what’s being said and watch for what isn’t being said out loud.
Families in the U.S. can access grants and programs through the Federal Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Kids in the Game, RallyMe Foundation, and the GoodLife Kids Grant Program to name a few. In Canada, provincial organizations provide grants to low income families for children’s sport and KidSportCanada is a good resource nationwide.
Think Outside the Sport
Video games open up entire worlds of experience for kids. Why shouldn’t sports do the same thing? The average kid played fewer than two team sports in 2015. Research shows that pressuring kids to specialize too early can be harmful in the long run. Multisport athletes get injured less than specialized athletes. Just like having a strong core stabilizes and prevents injury, well-rounded athletes are better off. With the physical literacy that comes from participating in a range of activities, athletes keep themselves adaptable. Multisport athletes get the benefits of cross-training and are mentally stimulated by the challenges of other sports.
The same goes for free play. Parents can be so protective of their kids that they don’t allow free play to the degree kids need. Some kids don’t even get recess anymore. Remember going for bike rides with your friends as a kid? Epic neighborhood games of hide and go seek? Lots of kids these days don’t get that kind of play and it’s becoming a problem. As much as possible, give kids the opportunity to make their own rules and have unstructured play. Free play improves academic, social and sport performance. It also gives kids the independence and adventure that’s usually only available via video games and TV.
You likely have memories of coaches who made a difference in your life. Coaches can make or break an athlete’s relationship with the sport. You guide practices, you determine how the team feels about losses and wins. The U.S. President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition found that coaches can lower anxiety and improve self-esteem in kids. Practice what you preach and stay on top of your game. Get training and keep training. Keep up to date with coaching techniques and approaches. Pay attention to your own motivation and enjoyment of the sport. If you’re not having fun, the kids probably aren’t either.
As a trained coach, you’ll also be able to look out for your players’ wellbeing. Parents worry about kids’ safety. As a trained coach you can respond to that worry and emphasize injury prevention among your team. Particularly in contact sports, make sure you’re looking out for players’ safety and teaching them how to prevent injuries that might take them out of the game.
It can be challenging to overcome obstacles like lack of funding, and socio-economic factors to get kids moving. You might not be able to control how much a kid’s family earns or how the community supports its athletes, but you can control how kids feel on your team. If you care, the kids will care. Kids know physical activity is good for them but it’s time to put the focus on the other benefits of being active. Create a foundation in kids for sports participation. Make it something they wouldn’t consider living without. A balance of physical activity, sedentary behavior and sleep is required for a healthy childhood. It’s becoming clearer that physical activity is an innate human need like eating, sleeping, and breathing. To increase sport participation we need to coach with that in mind.
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