Two young boys playing tennis together shake hands at the net.

Is your child playing the wrong sport?

My son was five years old when I signed him up for his first organized sport. It was recreational soccer and a bunch of his friends were signed up too. I was so excited for him to get started. I bought him some gently used soccer cleats and new shorts. Visions of a happy child running across a field of green with a soccer ball under foot had me all teary-eyed. The reality was, unfortunately, the exact opposite.

During his first soccer practice, he complained that his feet were sore, that he was out of breath, and that it was too hard. He lingered on the sideline despite the best efforts of the enthusiastic coaches and myself to get him on the field. I was dismayed! I thought he’d love playing soccer with his buddies. He completed the soccer season, but it was clear that he was playing the wrong sport.

Flash forward 10 years and my now 15-year-old son is a passionate Olympic weightlifter with the hopes of competing internationally. You might be wondering what happened between now and then. Let’s just say that it took trial and error, careful observation, and asking some important questions to get to this place with my son.

Is your child involved in youth sports? Are they playing the wrong sport? It’s a good question to ask. So often we put our kids in sports because we love the sport, or their friends love the sport. While it’s good to try a variety of children’s sports (more on that later), there are some great strategies for determining if a sport is a good fit for your child or not. In this article, I’ll share with you why sports are so great for young athletes and strategies for preventing your child from playing the wrong sport.

The benefits of playing sports for kids

For kids to be happy and healthy, they need to move! The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines recommends that kids and teens (ages five to 17) get 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. There are a lot of great ways of getting kids moving, but sports provide unique opportunities for helping children develop physical literacy, improve mental health and well-being, learn problem-solving skills, become more successful in school, and develop healthy habits. It’s clear that taking part in sports and other types of physical activity in childhood has many benefits but it also lays the foundation for being active for life [PDF], which can improve health over the long term. 

How to prevent your kids from playing the wrong sport

Sometimes it’s obvious when a child is playing the wrong sport, but not always. Also, the right sport might switch as your child grows and changes. Here are the questions I ask when I’m trying to figure out if my child is playing the wrong or right sport.

Three children sit on the floor of dance studio with their arms and legs straight out in front of them.

Ask these questions:

Why is my child playing this sport?

Whether we want to admit it or not, the sports we put our kids into are heavily influenced by two things. First, our own personal experience with different sports. Second, our friends’ or our kids’ friends’ interest in sports.

When it comes to our own personal experience with sports, we often let our love or dislike of certain sports impact what we put our kids into. For example, my husband is an avid rock climber. He loves nothing more than spending time on the rock wall with myself and our kids. Because of his climbing passion, he has encouraged all of our kids to climb and even to try out competitive climbing. Over time, however, he’s come to realize that rock climbing is the wrong sport for at least two of our five kids.

On the other end of the spectrum, I was a committed dancer for many years of my childhood and adolescence. The experience was overall positive, but very intense. When my daughter first showed interest in dance, I refused to sign her up. I didn’t want her to experience the stress and anxiety that I went through. Eventually, when she was nine years old, I relented and now, at 13, she’s absolutely thriving in dance.

Other times we put our kids into sports because it’s what our friends are doing, or what our kids’ friends are doing. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. When my daughter was young, she took some gymnastics classes with her friends. While she never went on to become a gymnast, it was a great opportunity to try the sport and develop physical literacy. On the other hand, as I mentioned in the introduction, I put my son into soccer for similar reasons and that turned out to be a disaster!

At the end of the day there’s nothing wrong with giving your child the opportunity to try a sport that you or your partner loves, or that their friends enjoy. Just keep in mind that your child might not love the sport in the same way.

What does my child like to do?

Paying attention to the things that your child enjoys doing can be a big help in figuring out what sport might be a good match. Does your child enjoy music and art? Try dance, figure skating, or gymnastics. Does your child like taking risks? Try rock climbing, diving, trail biking, or skateboarding. Does your child like to read? Try swimming, martial arts, or running. If in doubt, ask your child! Look through your local recreation guide together and see if there’s a sport that piques your child’s interest.

What kind of personality does my child have?

A child’s personality also has an impact on whether a sport will be a good fit. If your child is extroverted and energetic, she might thrive playing group sports that require a lot of teamwork like soccer, baseball, or basketball. On the other hand, if your child is introverted and calm, he may prefer an individual sport like martial arts, swimming, gymnastics, golf, or climbing.

How old is my child?

The age of your child is an important factor in sports. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that young children between the ages of three and five focus on basic skills like running, tumbling, throwing, and catching and that entry-level sports like soccer, baseball, gymnastics, skating, and non-contact martial arts should wait until middle childhood, between the ages of six and nine. Here’s a helpful chart from the Canadian Paediatric Society to help you determine when your child is ready to play organized sports. Sport for Life also has a helpful Sport Parent’s Guide [PDF] that outlines the stages for sport training that respects a child’s physical, mental, and emotional development.

A group of elementary-age kids hold onto the edge of the pool during a swimming lesson.

What kind of physical build does my child have?

Kids come in all shapes and sizes and that’s a great thing. I believe it’s important to have inclusivity in sports and encourage my kids to pursue their interests regardless of their physique. That being said, I also think it’s important to set kids up for a successful experience in sports. My eldest son, the one mentioned in the introduction, is average-sized and big-boned. At the age of 10, he joined the local indoor rock climbing youth team. He had fun climbing with his friends, but his lanky peers were out-climbing him in no time, leaving him feeling discouraged.

One day, I brought him to an introductory youth CrossFit session and that’s when he discovered weightlifting. That eye-opening experience led him to our local Olympic weightlifting club, where he discovered a sport that was a great match for his build. Not only has this good match allowed him to excel in the sport, but it’s been a major confidence boost for him.

It’s important to remember that a child’s physique won’t be fully known until after they go through puberty, so it’s wise not to put too much emphasis on physique at a young age. It’s just something to keep in mind. The wonderful thing about the world of sports is that there’s something for every child, regardless of their build.

Is the sport a good fit for my family?

A wise parent once told me that whenever I signed my child up for a sport, I was signing up myself too. While you won’t see me attempting to snatch heavy weights over my head anytime soon, you will find me chauffeuring my kids to and from practice, cheering from the sidelines, cooking up energy-fuelled meals, and doing whatever else I can to help support them in their chosen sport. These are things that I’m happy to do and work well for our family. However, I’ve intentionally steered clear from sports that require early-morning wake-ups or weekend commitments because those don’t work for our family.

If the sport your child is playing is causing friction in your family then your child might be playing the wrong sport. Some sports require a significant amount of commitment in terms of time and money.

How does my child respond to the sport (before, during, and after)?

It helps to pay attention to the way your child behaves before, during, and after the sport she is playing. Sports are shown to improve mood and reduce stress, but playing the wrong sport can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, and frustration. While it’s normal to have an off day every once in a while, if your child constantly struggles with negative feelings and behaviours while playing a sport, then it might be the wrong sport for her.

For more on this, check out: What you need to know about your kids, sports, and mental health.

Pursue a multisport approach

Another important strategy for finding the right sport for your child is to pursue a multisport approach. Experts say that it’s a good idea to expose kids to a variety of sports in their younger years to help them develop physical literacy and to find a sport that they want to continue to pursue in their teenage years. I couldn’t agree more! When my kids were young I encouraged them to try out a variety of recreational sports and physical activities. Things like soccer, swimming, gymnastics, rock climbing, hiking, biking (trail and street), mini-triathlons, skiing (downhill and Nordic), and dance. It’s only now as they’ve entered into their teenage years that they’ve become focused on one or two sports.

For more on multisport, you might like to read:

My child is playing the wrong sport—now what?

If you’ve determined that your child is playing the wrong sport, don’t be discouraged. There are so many wonderful sports for kids to choose to play. I recommend looking through your city’s sport recreational guide and trying different sports based on your child’s age, interest, personality, etc. Don’t be discouraged if your child tries a range of sports before settling on one or two as they move into adolescence. Most importantly, keep sports fun for your child! This will ensure that they continue to enjoy playing sports well into their adult lives.

Read more about kids’ sports:

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