Keeping Kids’ Sports on Track
Story by Erin Wyble Newcomb
Illustration by Annie Dwyer Internicola
Sometimes it feels like I grew up on the track. I still love its scent, and I still credit running as my first love. At this point in my life, I’ve seen athletics from many perspectives; I raced as a Division I athlete and, post-college, qualified for the Boston Marathon. I’ve coached little kids, athletes for the Special Olympics and highly competitive adolescents. And now, as a parent, I come to sports wanting for my children what athletics have given me: discipline, health and joy.
I’ve run competitively for the last 25 years; my training is habitual, and I reap the rewards of my dedication on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong: I like to compete, and I like to win. I don’t think competition needs to be a negative in children’s sports, but I don’t think it should be the end goal, either. On any given day, someone might be faster than I am. That’s why races are run. Those victories are sweet, but we need to teach kids to respect the perseverance that produces victories as well as the opponents we face. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, but the work itself can be rewarding. Even the Olympic motto is “Faster. Higher. Stronger.” Sure, that means better than others, but even for elite athletes, sometimes that only means better than we used to be.
My emphasis on health, for myself and my children, also means winning today can’t be the primary focus. I don’t want to sacrifice the future for the present. For my husband and me, that means more cross-training and more self-care as we age. For my children, that means not specializing in any sport too early and not pushing beyond developmentally appropriate guidelines. Any holistic view of health should include social and spiritual health in addition to physical well-being. Sports can be a great way to build relationships with family, friends and neighbors, but that also requires parents to keep the big picture in mind: not beating someone else in the moment, but bringing out the best in all of us.
What keeps me running after all these years, though it seems I get a little slower all the time, is the joy my sport gives me. I love the camaraderie as much as the competition. I love the energy of races and the feeling of being part of something bigger than myself. I love racing in front of and behind and alongside of other athletes running for their lives. These are the gifts my sport has given me, and these are the gifts I hope my children find in their own athletic endeavors.
As a parent, I can model my own good practices and show my children the joy of healthy discipline. And I can remind them of another motto that’s always inspired me, the Special Olympic maxim: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” It’s that kind of character that makes athletics—and athletes—shine.