So, let’s say you have a child who is four years old, and she starts to show a lot of interest in music. What’s the next step? Do you take her to a children’s band, hand her an instrument, and tell her to join in? Obviously not. She can’t be a musician unless she understands the basic fundamentals of music. This, you’re saying, is a no-brainer, right?
Well, you’d think. So why is it that when it comes to sports, we put our kid in the car, drive him to the ball field or court and have him demonstrate the skills we taught him in the backyard – and in the process, hope he doesn’t embarrass himself (or us) in front of a group of people?
Sports, music, drama, art: Whatever the activity, it requires skills of some sort, and in sports, we can’t just expect kids to show up ready to play. I will admit that some kids are just born athletes; these are the ones who stand out and are automatically selected for the team. But the other 80 percent of kids need a solid foundation with which to work. In sports, it’s about throwing, catching, kicking, hitting and running, and these skills need to be taught to kids before they are put in – many times – a confidence-destroying situation that can have a long-lasting negative effect.
The National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) conducted a study several years ago with 1,100 kids ages six to eight. They were tested on their basic motor skills, and guess what? A whopping 40 percent of them did not meet the minimum requirement to feel successful playing sports. Now, if you’re like me – someone who has seen far too many unprepared kids play T-ball, soccer or other sports requiring basic motor skills – it’s not hard to understand that we are making children’s first experiences in sports, well, frustrating.
In 1990, I had a visit from one of the people who helped make the Koosh Ball a national success. He told me that the creator of the Koosh Ball was motivated to make the stringy object because every time he threw a regular ball to his daughter, it hurt and she didn’t want to play anymore. He felt that the Koosh Ball would be an excellent way to start kids off right when learning how to catch. One thing led to another, and from that conversation the Start Smart Sports Development program was founded. Today, Start Smart – a program of NAYS that teaches kids ages three to five basic motor skills and sport skills, along with their parents – is sweeping the country, using fun, non-threatening, colorful products to teach kids the basic skills that sports requires.
Perhaps the most unique aspect about the program is that it requires parents to be a part of the learning process. In this way, parents are taught their role in making their child’s sports experience fun and safe, first and foremost. Moms and dads also pick up helpful tips on how to continue working with their children on the skills at home.
One of the many communities offering Start Smart is Bransby, Ga. Deb Beauford, senior program director with the Bransby Outdoor YMCA, believes strongly in the parent component of the Start Smart program.
“We give the parents homework, so they have the skills to work with the kids, hopefully bonding relationships,” Beauford said. “Parent involvement is vital in getting children involved, and that is precisely why they’re here to learn just as well.”
The best part about the Start Smart program is, of course, that the children who participate are practically guaranteed to have a fun first sports experience that builds confidence and motivation – and the foundation for them to continue to participate in sports and other healthy activities.
Beauford agrees: “We’re developing better players, and planting seeds for lifelong sports skills and enjoyment. The program is definitely a self-esteem booster. We’ve had kids go from Start Smart in the summer right into a (sport) league in the fall.”
This sort of success is usually what happens when we are given the skills and knowledge to participate in an activity beforehand – not after.
Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), which is in its 25th year of advocating for positive and safe youth sports and offering training and education programs for coaches, parents, administrators and officials. To find out more about the Start Smart Sports Development program, visit www.nays.org.