Putting the Ball in Your Kid's Court

By: Sue Comeau | Parenting | Action Resources

I have this great story, about the first race my dad ever saw me run. It never fails to get a laugh from my fellow parents, along with a raised eyebrow or two:

I started running track when I was 15 – old by today’s standards.

When I announced I wanted to join the school track team, my dad took me shopping to buy my first running shoes.

Most of our meets were in neighboring towns, so I told my folks I would just let them know what happened. I didn’t want expectations and they respected that. So, at our supper table, we might talk about running. But then we might talk about how my brother was restoring an old car, or my other brother was doing this great new outdoor leadership class. Performance was never analyzed.

By the time I was midway through university, my specialty was 1500 meters. I had raced at several national level meets with my team. Our cross-country team had placed 3rd at the Canadian Championships.

By this point, my mom was starting to know my (and my friends’) personal bests.

My dad’s only concerns: Were my knees hurting? Did I need new running shoes? Did I need a few extra bucks for the track meet I was going to? Should he fire up the barbeque when I brought my running friends home?

When the Canada Games qualification meet came up for Nova Scotia, my parents wanted to see me race. I was 22 years old.

The starting pistol went off and we went out fast on the other side of the track.

Dad turned to Mom and asked, “How far does she have to go?”

Mom said, “She’s got to come around, then do three more laps.”

Dad looked at her in dismay. “My gosh, she’ll never make it!”

The look on Dad’s face and the laugh as he hugged me after my race was one I’ll never forget.

I love telling this story because, #1 it’s cute and funny. And #2 because the level of control my parents let me have over my sport is so unheard of today.

My folks were always interested to hear about places I traveled with my team, my track friends were always welcome at our home, they were excited for all my successes and sympathetic with my failures… But they let me take the lead.

I owned it.

Kids these days need to have ownership of their activities too. And yet, while I see many kids that would do sports for every waking hour, I also see some kids being pushed into sports. Or ‘fun’ runs. Or sports camps. Or having to ‘finish out’ an activity they started, even though they hate it.

I’ve heard kids (yes I eavesdrop) talk about doing a fun run because “my dad’s making me” or saying they hate a sport but “Mom said I have to keep going”.

Even if it’s not that blatant, many parents unwittingly put pressure on kids to participate in something they don’t really like.

Just to clarify: This is not to say don’t get involved in your kids’ sports. Studies show that kids see parental support as a positive. It’s only when parents become overly involved, placing emphasis on winning and making teams that it becomes a negative. The cheering parents on the sidelines may think they’re being helpful, but kids can see that as pressure, and a hindrance.

Let your kids take the lead.

Square One

So how do you let your kids own their activities?

Just to go back to the beginning for a moment…

In fitness programming, we talk a lot about motivation. There are two types:

Intrinsic – where you do something for the sake of doing it. (I love to play tennis.)

Extrinsic – where you get a ‘reward’ for doing something. Perhaps a medal, or a treat afterward. (I want to take tennis lessons to get the t-shirt at the end.)

For a kid (or anyone) to stick with an activity, there has to be intrinsic motivation. They have to enjoy it, love it, be happy to go and participate. Sure you can have extrinsic rewards as a minor player. But it won’t keep them in it, or at least not for the long term.

What Kids Want

Back when I was teaching a class in fitness assessment and exercise programming here at Dalhousie University, we had to cover motivation.

What makes people (including kids) want to do an activity?

So we would talk about the ‘C’s of Activity Enjoyment’.

Guess what’s on the top of the list?



(If you’re wondering what some of the other C’s are: competence, challenge, companionship, and for some, competition. But I digress!)

While we can suggest sports or activities, kids ultimately have to have a choice in what they’re doing.

They may try a few sports and activities before latching onto the stuff they really want to commit to. Trying new activities is (to quote Martha Stewart) a good thing!

Then they need a sense of control over their own activities.

“Wait a minute,” you might say, “Kids need to learn to finish what they start. They need to learn commitment to a team. They need exercise.”

You’re right.

Yet, if we step back and look at the big picture, this is our kids’ leisure time.

They have to be having fun.

If they’re not, physical activity and sports become a negative force in their lives.

They will drop out and feel bad about it.

Recently, a friend was talking about how his son is on the swim team, and they have to get up so early, then there are other sports to get to, and the other kids are in different things, and they spend a lot of time in the car, and… (I was feeling tired by then).

I asked him if his son liked swim team. My friend shrugged and said, “Well, he doesn’t complain.”


‘Doesn’t complain’ and ‘having fun’ are two very different things.

(When I asked his son later, “Hey, do you like swim team?” the tone in his response was about as pumped up as a burst balloon. “”It’s okay,” he said flatly. Blah.)

So even if we assume our kids are enjoying an activity, it never hurts to touch base every once in a while:

“Hey, what was your favorite thing about dance practice today?”

“Who do you like to be partners with when you do drills?”

“Is your coach nice?”

“How is (insert friend/teammate name here) doing?”

“Did you have fun today?” (Yes, a classic.)

These are conversation starters. You can open up the conversation with anything. Then take it from there.

Does your kiddo sound engaged?

Is he positive?

Excited to talk about her team, instructor, or lessons?

What’s his body language and facial expression?

When kids are into something, they’ll show it. They’re enthusiastic.

If in doubt, try this: Announce that they can’t go to the next practice or session.

If you get a spirited “Yesss!” you may want to chat more about if they really like it.

Or if they like it, but the number and duration of activity sessions is too much.

Or is there too much emphasis on competition.

(These can turn kids away from a sport they would otherwise love.)

Besides some of the questions above, I go for the general yet direct approach:

“Are you still having fun?”

Starting a New Activity

After hearing fellow parents talk about making their kids finish out an activity class or season (while their little athlete looked on forlornly), we started a ‘risk-free’ activity policy.

If my kids want to try something new, I make sure they can go to a session or two without committing to the whole enchilada. Many sport, dance, and activity organizations offer this sort of thing. Or you can request it.

(If they try something and don’t like it, I high-five them and tell them I’m proud of them for giving it a whirl.)

For sure, sometimes kids need to make a commitment to a team or group, and that’s only fair to the other kids. But that’s usually once they’ve participated for a while. Again, talk about it with your little athlete.

There are always choices, and you are the advocate for your child.

Does your daughter love playing basketball but doesn’t want to play in a league? Perhaps she can sign up for ‘skills and drills’ type of activity. Or you can find a hoop near your house. Does your son like to paddle or play hockey but doesn’t want to compete? There are tons of recreational programs out there.

Smile and Wave

When my kids are happily involved in an activity, I like to get into my ‘Penguins of Madagascar’ mode: “Smile and wave boys. Smile and wave.”

(And if you haven’t seen the movie Madagascar, I highly suggest you watch it. If only for the penguins. Love those guys…)

I learned this quickly, after trying to play tennis with my son. See, I love tennis. I used to joke that I wanted my kids to learn to play tennis, so we could have something to play together. (Okay, I was serious.) But my son tried tennis, and he doesn’t love it. He barely likes it. He loves sailing. I had to change my mindset. After all, this isn’t about me. So I now have about 150 pictures of my son sailing. And he’s taught me a thing or two.

As I write this, my daughter just ran her first cross-country race yesterday. I asked if she was sure she wanted to run – she’s only in grade 4. But all her pals were running, so there was no stopping her.

Having lots of cross-country racing strategy under my belt, I choked down my urge to coach her. Every time I wanted to tell her to “lean into the hill” or “stay with that group” or what have you, I stopped myself and instead yelled “Yay! You’re so awesome!”

She did a cartwheel with 500 meters to go, cheered on by a group of older kids.

I loved it.

Most importantly though, she loved it.


No matter how many organized sports or activities your kids are doing, nothing replaces play. Whether you’re out shooting hoops and goofing around with them or they’re playing a game with neighborhood friends, nothing beats unscheduled activity. Kids in our neighborhood play ‘mantracker’, kind of like the classic hide and seek. I love seeing kids sort out the rules with their friends – no parents involved.

Family Time

Just so you don’t feel left out of your kids’ active lives, let me tell you about a neat tradition my brother started when his girls were small.

Every Sunday afternoon, they would do an activity together, if only for a couple of hours. The kids took turns choosing. So one week, they went bowling. Another Sunday, they went for a hike. And so on.

We do the same thing. Sometimes they bring a friend. We always have fun.

Something as simple as sitting down with your kids and giving them the magic wand of decision means a lot to them.

Putting the ball in your kid’s court empowers them. It makes them want to be active. Ultimately, it makes them happy. Talk about great rewards!