Help a kid get better at sports
May 2, 2021 6:21 PM   Subscribe

My 10-year-old daughter is suddenly very aware that she is not “good” at sports. She’s never been interested in team sports but now really wants to get better. We want to encourage this newfound interest without being overbearing. How do we do this?

My 10-year-old daughter is suddenly very aware that she is not “good” at sports. She’s never been interested in team sports but now really wants to get better. We want to encourage this newfound interest without being overbearing. While it would be cool if she found a sport she loved, I think she mostly just doesn’t want to always feel like the worst kid at anything physical.

She’s a tall, thin kid who tends to be very cautious. I don’t think there’s any physical reason why she can’t learn to play some team sports. I think it’s more that she doesn’t have the experience of other kids and that starts to add up at her age. The problem in the past has always been that she gets frustrated with herself easily and we aren’t very good about consistent practice. FWIW, she’s way more coordinated than I was as a kid. Her dad was pretty athletic as a kid.

She says that she wants to be able to run faster, play soccer, and basketball. She recently learned to ride a bike, which has been awesome and is giving her so much more confidence. She was also slow to learn to swim a few years ago but absolutely loves swimming now.

Does anyone have advice on how to help a kid improve at sports in a relaxed, supportive way? We don’t want to be crazy sports parents, we just want to help our kid feel comfortable and boost her confidence. I was thinking that starting with a Couch-to-5k style program might be helpful and she seems interested.
posted by JuliaKM to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Rock climbing might be a good sport to try because you just do your best to get better and stronger, but you don't need to compete against people or play with a team or have other people rely on your sports skills. If she sees herself getting stronger, that might build her confidence to try other sports too. Tall and thin people generally have an easier time lifting their body weight and reaching for farther holds. See if there is a gym near you and talk to them about the best way to get started (bouldering vs top rope).
posted by at 7:04 PM on May 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There are actually two questions here, how to become more athletic in general and how to develop skill at particular sports. They're not necessarily the same thing.

Becoming more athletic is fairly easy, if she's motivated. At 10, strength training won't be a thing yet, but she can still do a lot of stuff to improve her general athleticism: balance, flexibility, and hand-eye coordination, the latter being definitely the most important. I played rec-league volleyball (a sport with a lot of opportunities for tall girls, by the way - might be something to suggest) with a guy once who was incredibly fit (yoga five days a week, parkour instructor, competitive breakdancer), but was terrible at volleyball because he didn't grow up playing ball sports. He could run anywhere on the court but couldn't hit the ball once he got there. Just playing catch, especially with a variety of balls (baseball, football, foursquare ball, etc.) will develop a lot. If you have access to a ping pong table, that would also do wonders for her coordination without requiring too much in terms of other physicality.

If other physicality is what she's after, though, obstacle courses are a good way to develop well-rounded athleticism while being really fun on their own.

Spatial awareness, being able to feel where your teammates and your opponents are on the field/court, is probably the most underrated skill in sports. I, alas, am not particularly good at it, so I can't help much, but it's something to keep in mind as you search for resources.

For running, agility (changing direction) and acceleration (getting up to speed) are more important than top-end speed. Being able to run really fast for more than 75 meters/25 seconds is really only a valuable skill for running track. Most sports happen in shorter bursts where you have to run around things, rather than just running in a straight line.

If she does get interested in strength training as she gets older, lower body work will generally pay off more than upper body work. I'm not saying upper body strength training is pointless, but running, skating, jumping - those are all lower body movements. She could probably do air squats now, as long as she doesn't overdo it.

Developing skill at individual sports, on the other hand, is just a matter of practicing and mastering the component techniques. That's fairly time-consuming and not always fun, but it will actually put her at an advantage. Most youth sports don't emphasize technique, and the "best" players are the best because they're naturally athletic. This is why kids who make varsity don't always end up in the NFL. Other kids catch up to them, or they play against better competition where everyone is naturally athletic.

If there's a particular sport she's interested in and you have the resources, hiring a private coach (basically a sports tutor) would be the best thing you could do. If not, you can do a lot of it yourself by searching Youtube for "[sport] drills". As she gets better, you can narrow your search so that, instead of "basketball drills", you can search for "dribbling drills" or "free throw drills" or "rebounding drills". The quality is hit or miss, but when they hit, they really hit. There's a lot of good stuff and you could absolutely improve quite a bit this way.

As with anything in childhood, if she has a friend who's interested in doing any of this with her, so much the better.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:08 PM on May 2, 2021 [6 favorites]

Martial arts is known for teaching coordination (and patience).
posted by oceano at 7:10 PM on May 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Mrs. True and I were both competitive team sport athletes through college, and our daughters have gone different paths - both are athletic, but one has focused on a single solo sport since age 5 and the other is a "try everything until she's good at it, then do something else" type.

Our policy to date has been "you have to do something athletic twice a week", and "when you get so frustrated with something you've been doing for a while that you want to quit, tell us - if you still feel that way in 6 months, you can stop no questions asked". It doesn't matter if the physical thing is a team sport, or martial arts, or dance classes, etc, they get to pick.

I think being a good sports parent means equal portions of 1) being supporting and not living vicariously through your child, and 2) pushing a little when it gets uncomfortable for them, which it will. Sports are frustrating - you have to confront failure, disappointing yourself, comparing yourself to others, etc. One of the things with sports is that it's very easy to feel frustrated for a period of time, so having rules like this gives a framework that takes the heat off of that immediate frustration - and in a month or so it's usually gone. It sounds like you have the supportive part down, but maybe not the part that she needs from you to help push through her discomfort?

I would also spend a little bit of time focusing on her goal for team sports - is it to be more athletic? Fit in more with her friends? Is there a reason she wants soccer and basketball? Those are tough sports to pick up late - as you say, people who are into those have been unto those for a while - even at age 10. If she just wants to be better physically there may be later-starting sports she can pick up, but it might be that she wants to fit in a little as well.
posted by true at 7:16 PM on May 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

I don't agree with the notion of trainers or drills or practice—at your daughter's age the only thing that actually matters is whether she likes doing the thing or not. Far better to find a game that she can enjoy, mucking around with a bunch of friends than to have a plan to improve. Does she have a friends group who regularly kick a ball around, ride bikes, throw a frisbee? Play that. Does she regularly watch a sport on TV, look up to specific athletes? Does she like talking about games? That's the sport.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:17 PM on May 2, 2021 [4 favorites]

If she does pick an organized /team sport, please make sure she knows the rules. I have got terrible memories of getting shoved into team sports in school and people assuming I knew the rules. I knew the kind of rules you learn doing drill in gym, the broad shapes of things, but there was a bunch of the more subtle thing (offside, What positions do, How many people can be in certain areas) that I guess they just... Expected me to know? And I didn't. Which was incredibly disheartening. I think sportier people pick up a lot from watching pro games so it's assumed people know.
posted by platypus of the universe at 7:31 PM on May 2, 2021 [8 favorites]

The answer will likely be different for everyone, but since I was also a tall thin kid who struggled with figuring out a sport I could like, I'll share that the answer for me was badminton. I tried a number of other team sports (including soccer), but I dunno- all of the moving parts and pressure of team sports wasn't the best match for me. Badminton still requires quick thinking and athleticism (seriously), but I found it oddly calming. So, sure, if she wants to play basketball and soccer, start there, but if team sports prove a poor fit, maybe give one of the racket sports a try.
posted by coffeecat at 8:08 PM on May 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Tall people have an advantage in fencing.
posted by NotLost at 8:17 PM on May 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to upvote kevinbelt here. It all calls down to what your kid really wants to do. If she wants to shoot hoops and play BBall, good for her! It's social and she'll make friends. If she's quiet and finds focus in herself lifting iron, that's great too! A smart, strong girl can go anywhere!

I wish my 10 year old self had a parent even half-interested in me. Your daughter is already fortunate that you are thinking about her.
posted by SPrintF at 8:43 PM on May 2, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Agreeing with kevinbelt that there's a difference between becoming more athletic and playing a particular sport.

In general though - definitely add in running. I've heard Couch to 5K is great, and but even just 10 minutes on as many days as you/she can will matter. Endurance and speed are going to help any sports. You can watch this on the field in the kids rec league soccer teams - there are kids who are already sophisticated fabulous soccer players, but there are also the kids who just run more, faster, longer, and they get to play a lot. Plus progress is relatively fast compared to a lot of other skills. (If she ends up enjoying running, the community is usually lovely at any skill level.)

Also, can you guys play with her? Not necessarily coach her, just find enough grass or blacktop to kick the soccer ball around, or maybe a local basketball hoop to casually shoot? One of the super hard things about being a beginner in popular sports is that everyone else has already spent lots of time just getting comfortable. Given how supportive you sound, I'm betting family is a psychologically safe place for her to fail without being as embarrassed. Pro tip - for kids, try playing "PIG" instead of "HORSE" on the basketball court. The game moves quicker for a beginner, and you don't risk having your child shriek "YOU'RE A HOR NOW MAMA" to the entire park when you miss a shot.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 10:06 PM on May 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: On the one hand (IMNSHO / experience) swimming is awesome and the most team/not-team boys/girs (but not really), but individual enough that girls often beat boys, there's still how fast can you do that 500m stroke (girl wins), that it's the awesome choice if that's what she likes and enjoys. (Senior boy (diver actually) that beanpole freshman girl could trounce in a swimming race. Team sport, individual metrics. Also more likely in HS to be lumped together like boy/girl swimming and boy/girl diving was all really just the 'swim team'. Not much room for gender crapfest of other sports.

Later on fencing and martial arts sort of things were also girl vs boy and it's all still a toss-up who wins (at least in practice vs truly mixed matches). Anyways, I'd try to avoid the sports that really pigeon-hole into a sport that was really split into girl team and boy team are separate things.

Swim team might be just the thing if that's what she likes.

The rest isa bit of woo. Sort of 'almost true' and 'personal experience' and other general advice woo that the only thing anyone can really say is "worked for me" or "to the best of my knowledge".

There are sorta three (I think) that I have that have a modicum of science or "have seen enough people say the same thing to be reasonably OK with taking it as sorta true".


Practice slow, learn fast. Practice fast, learn slow. Thisties into the second or the first or they are so mushed together to be the same thing)

Use your Imagination. Practice what you want to do in your head. Do it slowly like dreaming in slo-mo. Imagine the perfect outcome slowly enough for your brain to have time to work out little details and such. When it really happens for do it and you do it well. Practice slow, learn fast. The opposite is trying to learn fast and each attempt is not-perfect (reality) and real-time so there's never time to train your brain to do the thing like a reflex. Practice fast, learn slow. The tortoise beats the hare. Some sports like martial arts tend to lead with this, you do the things slow and with thought and over and over but slow and letting all those little details sink in. Then when the time comes to do it fast (for reals) it just happens. Slow, not Fast.

The third is the idea of a 'center'. You are roughly a spherical cow and your rough center of gravity is an inch or so below your belly button. This point is where you move from. Maybe being a diver as a kid... that point inside you that things spin around even flying though the air is something worth cultivating a "keep that in mind" sort of thing.

I think the strength/endurance training sorta come hand-in-hand with the choice of thing.... I grew up a rural climbing trees and swimming and riding bikes sort of kid.

So 10 is like what? 4th grade? Already sports and competition? I can barely wrap my head around being all compettitive-ish sports-wise (too busy climbing trees and such) at that age so YMMV.

So maybe just keep her active until swim team time. :)

The bonus would be Learn to Juggle. It's not that hard. That gets you a bunch of hand/eye and body coordination for free just from trying to not drop something.


Do what you like.
Practice slow, learn fast; Practice fast, learn slow.
Mind your center.

The rest follows of it's own accord.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:01 PM on May 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Take her to a sporting goods store and ask her what she wants to try vs. what the school offers?

One can train oneself in general fitness easily enough that applies to all sports. THEN one can learn skills for a specific sport. The two are not the same, and can be handled separately.
posted by kschang at 11:20 PM on May 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might need to get the lay of the land in team sports in your area. Where I grew up there were different leauges and stuff happening at age 10-13 where there were teams for people who just realized they might want to learn this, to I'm willing to go out of town every weekend for tournaments and am planning to get a college scholarship in this sport teams. At that age there was some movement between beginnger teams, mid level teams and the more serious teams, but as it got to high school when there were school teams as well, these started to have significantly less movement.

I found for me that soccer was really generalizabile in terms of things like playing with friends or pe classes . I was basically in shape athletically so I could hold my own even in a sport I wasn't necessarily good at.

Anyway, if you know what's going on, you can pick something that fits yours and her expectations of a team sport and just go from there. There might be social reasons for particular teams or sports (for example my friend plays this sport on this team) which might make things a little more challenging, and you'll have to talk to your daughter about that . Team sports can be incredibly social activities if your daughter fits in well, or they can be fairly isolating if she doesn't. It's a hard balance and teams are built differently. Also the attitudes of the coaches make a huge difference in experience , so paying attention to how things are being said and encouraged is important.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:34 AM on May 3, 2021

Best answer: Is she saying she wants be be better in sports because she struggles in PE? I never cared about team sports as a kid, but PE was always a little mortifying because while I was reasonably athletic, a lot of other kids did soccer or little league/softball and had older siblings or parents who would practice with them at home, and I didn’t, so I was very far behind. Maybe you could find a high school kid to teach her soccer and basketball? Just some one on one fun low pressure learning might be enough to get her skills better.
posted by umwhat at 4:12 AM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Do you have a rec sports organization in your town? Ours is through the school district, where I was growing up it was through the Y. Rec sports offer both low key leagues, and classes, like this one for basketball or a youth sports sampler. A nice thing about these kinds of classes is that, unlike gym class soccer where it’s dominated by the kids who already know how to play, it’s all kids who are learning. The classes often segue into a low key league. Again, rec sports are where you find the non-crazy sports parents. The crazy sports parents are all off yelling at their kids from a sideline of an invitational 200 miles away, whereas you can go to a rec league game at a local park.
posted by rockindata at 4:18 AM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a kid who actively avoided team sports because I was "bad" at them - make sure she can see. I was smart, no one realized I was nearsighted for a long, long time (I was 11) and by the time I had glasses, I was so scarred by "athletic" kids being mean to me that I never wanted to be in that environment ever again.

Also, at a young age, strength training can in fact be a thing if she is interested in that. This girl is lifting at age 12. If she is interested in being stronger, she can certainly work on that in a age-appropriate way.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:06 AM on May 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

Is there not a basketball or soccer team near you that would take on a 10 year old beginner? That would seem to be the obvious choice. Where I live kids (especially boys) start soccer younger, but sports like basketball would have a good number of beginner 10 year olds. Other sports that might work include volleyball, field hockey or possibly lacrosse (depending on where you live). All classic team games that a 10 year old would generally have the coordination to be able to play, and the ability to understand the rules. At her age, I played 5-a-side soccer for a year, and the picked up field hockey which I played in a low-key way for 4 or 5 years. While I wasn't objectively very good, it's about the only time I had an confidence in my sporting ability and felt like a sporty person. I was also fun.

Alternatively, if she's wants a half way house, then something that's individual but typically done with a team/club might be good. Racket sports (badminton, tennis), trampolining, swimming and diving would fit in this category.

If she really wants to run, then that's something that can be pursued as an individual training thing. But, she will probably be able to run a bit faster if she regularly participants in an active sport, and her other wants seem a bit more "fun with other people" focused.
posted by plonkee at 5:29 AM on May 3, 2021

Response by poster: Thank you for all the great responses! I was honestly a little misty-eyed reading through all of your answers. You’ve given me so much hope!

To answer some questions, she wants to both be more sporty and to fit in when playing what she sees as normal sports. Or in kid-speak, “I don’t want to always be the worst at every game.” She has some very sporty friends who play competitive soccer. I’d love for her to try fencing, rock climbing, martial arts, and other less traditional sports but she’s pretty insistent that she wants to be able to play the sports her friends do and that that exist in PE class. Pre-pandemic, she was very into aerial silks. She’s says she wants to keep swimming for fun and doesn’t want to be on a swim team.

We’re thinking it would be fun to try something new each month and do it 2-3 times a week. So, this month will be the month of running and next month she wants to do basketball. We found some great, intro-level classes at our local recreation center that are only a month long and super cheap. Thanks for the rec center tip! We’re going to get some juggling balls and play catch/soccer more too because those things seem like fun for our whole family.

Thanks again to this amazing community!
posted by JuliaKM at 6:44 AM on May 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: All good answers above, but I wanted to comment that there are some things you as a family can do as well for casual fun that have the benefit of also improving the hand-eye coordination aspect of things. Examples include stuff like bocce, croquet, badminton, frisbee, a ping pong table (note that there are ones that fold up), and putting up a basketball hoop, if there is a spot for it.
posted by gudrun at 6:56 AM on May 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "We’re thinking it would be fun to try something new each month and do it 2-3 times a week"

This is a really good idea. Once you buy the gear, it's yours, and she can go back to it if she feels like it. I think this is one of the keys to being "sporty" - you have a garage or basement full of different sports gear. When I was a kid, I don't know how many times a friend or a neighbor came over and saw, say, tennis rackets in our basement, leading to us spending the afternoon playing tennis. Or golf or lacrosse or whatever. It's also good to avoid specialization, which is a problem with a lot of kids' sports.

I should note that, while I kind of hated on running earlier, it's a pretty essential part of pretty much every team sports practice. A Couch-to-5k kind of thing would be helpful if for nothing else than to make her more comfortable with the laps portion of practice warmup.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:09 AM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would also check on the various leagues in your city - 10-13 is legitimately when certain sports start going professional, especially soccer, gymnastics, and baseball, and there will be leagues catering to them and there will be leagues catering to more friendly or fun play.

I should note that, while I kind of hated on running earlier
I'll hate on running (as a kid). Track is the worst unless you are naturally gifted or just love it from the first day, because every day from that gets harder.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:31 AM on May 3, 2021

Best answer: As a former unathletic kid and current slightly-more-active adult, I want to point out that understanding how sports TEAMS work is another aspect of sports that's very different from general athleticism and from learning to play a sport (as others have mentioned earlier).

Like platypus of the universe, I remember being given the very basic rules of softball in gym class as a kid and then being shoved into the outfield and having no idea what I was actually supposed to do, other than maybe try to catch the ball? Everyone else seemed to automatically know what to do. I did not grow up in a sporty household and never picked up any of these things on my own, so I just figured that team sports weren't for me.

I didn't learn how a play in softball/baseball actually worked until my late twenties when I joined the office beer league team. Some of my teammates coached Little League and they literally walked me through step by step: why the outfielder was throwing to this guy and not that guy; why everyone was suddenly shifting positions; how the outfielders, basemen, and pitcher were coordinating with each other; how strikes/outs/innings actually translated to what people were doing on the field. It was revelatory and I wish I'd learned it as a kid, when it was easier to internalize this way of thinking. I'm still pretty bad at softball/baseball but I understand it and enjoy it more now, and that's also translated into better appreciating and learning from other sports.

I don't really have any concrete suggestions for you, besides maybe consider starting with lessons/classes rather than an actual league, but I wanted to flag it as an important part of getting better at "normal team sports" that people who are already good at "normal team sports" might not even realize is necessary.
posted by yeahlikethat at 8:45 AM on May 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I began to have an interest in playing sports at that age too, but in retrospect it was more about fitting in and being “normal” than about any latent interest (or, god knows, aptitude) for sports. Ten is around the age where a kids who are athletic start to become more recognized by their peers and it starts to tie into the whole popularity thing. My parents were open to letting me try anything I wanted (including soccer and basketball) but were also completely cool about letting me quit after a year or two and I strongly encourage you to do the same. It’s just as valuable for your kid to try sports and decide it really isn’t her thing as it is for her to try and decide she likes it and wants to stick with it.
posted by cakelite at 9:15 AM on May 3, 2021

Response by poster: Just wanted to say thanks for the advice to learn the rules of sports too! She's mentioned that baseball is incredibly confusing in PE class. I bet it would be fun to watch some sports movies and to watch more sports on TV.
posted by JuliaKM at 9:16 AM on May 3, 2021

I hope for your daughter's sake that her middle school PE is as awesome as mine was. In 6th grade, we were required to take a co-ed PE class and we had units focusing on a lot of the major sports. I think it covered track, volleyball, soccer, basketball, football, and probably one other. The coach started from zero, taught all of the rules, and then we worked up to playing actual games / having races.

I think you've gotten good answers, but I wanted to chime in as another voice that 10 years old is NOT too old to get into team sports recreationally (or even competitively!). If you hear somebody say that IRL, that's a pretty good sign that whatever league their kid is playing in is not the league your kid wants. I discovered soccer when I was 10, then played recreationally through high school, in various pickup games and rec leagues. At least where I grew up, there were a *lot* of opportunities to play that didn't take the game too seriously.
posted by Metasyntactic at 7:30 PM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So, coming in late here but.. I have 3 adult boys. the oldest wasn't very athletically skilled, but wanted to be better and learn (he was playing rec soccer for years, but around 11 or 12 realized he was a bit 'off' in the sportiness side of things, but enjoyed soccer and wanted to play more). For that, we actually went to one of the local indoor sports places that have team training and such, and were able to hire a private coach. It wasn't crazy expensive, we laid out the goals (learn to run properly.. he had an awkward stride, some strength/balance, etc..)

It was not as costly as YOUR personal trainer, let's say. (I want to say maybe $25-$50 an hour.. I know, a bit of a cost, but it's personal training, and then you aim at going to group training eventually which is cheaper.. but it was really really effective and helpful)

These are coaches with kids in focus, so they're really great with younger kids into teenage years, as well. You could ask them to do some general physical activity, sprinkling in different sports to see what she ends up liking best.

It ends up being a safe space, since they aren't in with other kids that may be more physically developed or know what they want, and then they can transition into small group and then larger groups.
posted by rich at 8:29 AM on May 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

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