This article originally appeared in “Chicago Tribune.”
I remember the highlight of my gymnastics career like it was yesterday. We stood on a springy blue floor, patiently waiting our turn. My tall, gangly 8-year-old self walked awkwardly to where my coach was standing and took my place on the white line. The task: Do a 180-degree jump and stick the landing to earn a sucker. I jumped. My eyes lit up as I looked at the coach. “Good job,” she said, handing me a Blow Pop.
Other prominent childhood sports memories include my first and only figure skating competition (I took third out of five girls but from my reaction, you’d think I’d won an Olympic bronze medal), and being praised for my stamina on the soccer field. I wasn’t the best ball handler and/or kicker, but I made up for it by chasing down every loose ball I could get my feet on.
I am naturally tall, awkward and uncoordinated. So my parents clearly were capitalizing on my potential when they signed me up for gymnastics, soccer and figure skating. Or not.
Actually, I think my parents had no agenda other than to keep me moving and having fun. At this, they succeeded. But they also unintentionally gave me a whole lot more. Here’s what I gained from my experiences playing youth sports.
• I developed basic movement skills that would later keep me from being completely awkward and embarrassed as a teenager and adult. For instance, when we had our gymnastics unit in freshman P.E. class, I could at least do a somersault and a cartwheel and didn’t have to learn this stuff at age 14. A few years later when I went ice skating on a date, I didn’t fall on my face and even was able to show off a bit.
• I developed aspects of fitness that later served me in other sports and in life. I didn’t know it at the time, but my sports of choice helped me build single-leg stability, flexibility, mobility, strength and power.
• Despite being sub-par at these sports, I had fun doing them. I believe this is partly because there was little pressure to focus on the outcome, so I was free to enjoy the process itself. I developed a healthy relationship with movement and active play.
By junior high, I came to terms with my lack of grace and my height and gave up gymnastics and ice skating. I was encouraged to take advantage of my endurance and commit to cross-country and track. But instead, I chose to play the sports that I thought were fun. In high school, I tried out for and played on the volleyball, soccer and basketball teams, challenging my strength, power, coordination and agility.
My experiences playing team sports in high school profoundly shaped who I am today – not just physically, but in my appreciation for and application of teamwork, communication and camaraderie. As an introvert, these things did not come naturally to me. In fact, I’m conjuring up an image of who I’d be today without my involvement in sports. My guess is a socially awkward, clumsy, scrawny, cautious, perpetually injured runner who still doesn’t know how to do a somersault.
Instead, I’m a generalist who loves everything from lifting weights to natural movement to running to swimming to hiking. I move with friends, I move by myself, I feel like I can jump into any sport and at least not embarrass myself. Not because I’m a natural athlete, but because I’ve had so many different athletic experiences.
Today, as my oldest son nears the age when many parents are already starting to specialize their kids in sports, I’m reminding myself of this.
My kids love playing at the playground. They enjoy playing soccer and baseball in the backyard. They love to swim. They ride their bikes and scooters to the park and hike in the woods. The oldest has dabbled in organized sports. But for now, all that matters to me is that my kids love to move and that their love of physical activity endures.
The Power of Play
The Park District of Oak Park launched a new program this fall, “The Power of Play,” encouraging children ages 5-12 to participate in a variety of sports and physical activities. The goal of the program, based on The Aspen Institute’s 2013 report “Project Play,” is for all children to be physically literate by age 12, with physical literacy defined as the “ability, confidence, and desire to be physically active for life.”
Kyle Sandine, the park district’s aquatic and rink manager, says the initiative came about as a response to the increasing tendency for children to specialize in one or two sports at a young age. Sandine says that in fact, a more generalized approach to physical activity can benefit kids in the long run.
“Age 12 is when we often see a big drop-off in sports participation,” Sandine said. “We want to make sure that by this age, kids have positive experiences doing so many different activities that they continue to be active for life – as opposed to burning out, getting injured or being cut from the high school team and then having no alternative.”
When kids train different muscles in different ways, they also reduce the risk of overuse injuries and develop aspects of fitness that will carry over into their eventual sport of choice. For instance, Sandine says, if a child who is interested in playing basketball takes a figure skating class, he or she will develop balance and core strength, which will help on the basketball court.
Perhaps the program’s most important message, however, is in its name – “play.”
“It’s also about bringing back this idea of unstructured play – encouraging kids to go to the park or the pool and just have fun and be a kid,” Sandine said.
You can learn more about the Power of Play initiative by visiting the park district website at www.pdop.com.
Nicole Radziszewski is a freelance columnist. She lives in River Forest and is a certified personal trainer and mother of two. Check Nicole out on Facebook at Facebook.com/mamasgottamove.