Organized Team Sports or Unstructured Activities?

This morning’s 4:00 am run facilitated an interesting and thought-provoking conversation. My longtime friend and running partner, Susan, posed the following question: is it really important for our kids to be part of an organized team sport, as long as they are getting a reasonable amount of exercise elsewhere?


I had never really considered this idea. My daughter has been swimming on a team for more than five years, in addition to team gymnastics, the tennis team, and soccer. My son has participated in tennis, karate, gymnastics, and now swim team, as well. While my boy is not as coordinated or physically inclined as my daughter tends to be, he never really complains about attending sports practices.  Sure, he is not as overtly enthusiastic about organized workouts as his sister, but he rolls right along with the schedule. To me, it was a natural progression: as kids mature, they join team sports, right? Not so with all children, as my running mate gently reminded me.

Susan’s boys do not enjoy organized sports at all, and I am sure they are not alone. After a structured day of school, after school care, and tutoring, the last thing her kids want is to be dragged to basketball or Taekwondo. They want downtime to unwind at home and play with their Legos and army men and then blow off some steam on the field kicking a soccer ball without instruction. She has tried repeatedly to get them involved in a variety of different sports, but with little success. Each new activity is continually met with the same resistance as the sport before.

For me, this begged the question: where is the line between encouraging and pushing our kids? How much gentle prodding (forcing?) into a sport is acceptable? We came to a few conclusions on our seven mile loop.

If our children decide they really do not enjoy organized team sports, who are we to force them to continue going? Is it worth the fight if both parties are miserable?

As long as our kids are maintaining a level of fitness through recreational pastimes, isn’t that enough? Hiking, biking, and running around the park seems like reasonable exercise to me.

We went on to debate these questions:

Is my child better suited for individual activities? Does he prefer solitude? Perhaps swim team would work for Susan’s son if he likes the quiet in his head while swimming laps?

Is my child non-aggressive, preferring less direct physical contact from others? Maybe basketball and football are not in the cards for my son.

Could a great coach inspire my kids and make a difference in their willingness to participate? Do I prefer:

Someone who provides lots of hands-on teaching and individual attention?

Someone who periodically stops a practice/workout to correct or affirm my child’s efforts?

Someone who is warm and fuzzy, promoting a feel-good environment, over one that is fiercely competitive?

I know Susan feels disappointed when her boys resist her efforts to sign them up for team sports, just as I feel frustrated when my son doesn’t work to the potential I know he is capable of achieving in an organized sport.  Maybe we have unrealistic expectations of our kids and we push them too hard? The value of participating in team sports can seem obvious, but maybe we also need to consider allowing our kids more unscheduled time and  the opportunity to just ride their bikes or play at the park too!