Putting the ‘break’ back in summer break

Childhood summer memories, for many, have a hazy idyllic feel that is a blur of free time, sleeping in and making up games with friends. But another growing summer tradition can disrupt this beloved notion of “summer break” - and it is not social media and devices.  Rather, it is something considered by most to be more wholesome - organized sports.

Broadly speaking, America loves sports. We build traditions around attending everything from parent-coached tot sports to professional games.  But the youth organized and travel sports world often has a higher price: Grueling schedules, kids forced to choose between sports, parents pulled in multiple directions and expenses both monetary and otherwise that can tax a family system.

Some parents find themselves asking - is it worth it?  There really isn’t a clear answer because it depends on the child as well as how their parents navigate the organized sports world.

Let’s start by considering what parents hope their children gain from a sports experience:

• Foster sportsmanship and the ability to work on a team

• Help keep their child physically healthy and active

• Improve social skills by spending time with peers

• Learn to respect authority

• Develop an ability to be persistent, practice, and work towards goals

• Spend time gaining skill in something they love

There is a lot to suggest participating in sports may help your child achieve these things, but it should be noted - it is not the only path. There is evidence that supporting a child specializing in something (not just sports) they have a passion for will build confidence, create resilience and help them understand the value of hard work.

There are some possible pitfalls to the organized sports system as it stands:

• Sportsmanship and team alliance can turn into being overly competitive and “us/them” mentality.

• There is no researched evidence to suggest specializing a child before adolescence will give them better odds at becoming elite down the line.

• Overly programmed kids can become dependent on authority figures to dictate play, instead of generating how to spend time in a group without a sport. This can make free time stressful.

• You don’t always pick the coaches. Balancing healthy respect of authority and adhering to personal values can be tricky.

• Being spread too thin or participating in too much structured play can lead to burn out.

• If it is truly something the child loves and wants to master, summer focus and travel teams can deepen this love.  If it is an activity that was selected for them, it can create feelings of conditional attachment.

Some ideas of how to strike a balance:

• Make sure you child is also spending time with other friends, different people, and building cooperative skills that don’t centralize around defeating someone else.

• Regularly check in with your child about where their interests are pointing them.  Make it clear they can complete a commitment, but they aren’t stuck in a situation that doesn’t work for them forever.

• Ensure they have free time in which neither you, nor any other authority figure is managing how they spend that time (other than maybe suggesting it’s not always a screen.)

• Model your own experiences of disagreeing with an authority figure, and authority figures methods/approach. How do you want them to handle when someone is misusing their power? Talk about your family values around personal authority.

• It is a parent’s job to expose their child to possibilities. This might mean occasionally demonstrating that it is ok to miss a game or a tournament to participate in something else they or the family values.

• Remember to sometimes express love and admiration about process of product. “I love watching how passionate you are.” instead of “You won!!! You are amazing!!” “Nothing makes me happier than spending time with you.” Instead of “I’m so glad you love this too!”

Remember that setting someone up for success isn’t just about teaching them to work hard, it’s about teaching them to listen to themselves and know when to push ahead, and when to step back.  Parents teach through what they model, so make sure your involvement with an organization truly reflects your values.

Gina Picchiotti is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and is a therapist at Action Consulting & Therapy