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Supporting Group or Team Participation

There are so many reasons to encourage your child to join a group physical activity or sports team.

For many, playing organized activities (such as being part of a soccer team or taking gymnastics lessons) is a fun way to keep active and make new friends. They also grow in other ways such as working with others, self-discipline, and building confidence as they learn new skills.

Some children and youth with mental health challenges may benefit from extra support when taking part in organized activities.  

They may have trouble grasping the rules of group play, such as waiting their turn to get the ball, or find it challenging to interact with others. They may experience difficulties with hand-eye coordination.

Whether your child plays team sports or takes a more individual path that lets them go at their own pace like martial arts or swimming, organized activities are a great way to get their bodies moving more.

The important thing is to encourage your child to be active and to enjoy the experience along the way.

Tips for supporting participation in organized sports and activities

To help your child make the most of their group or team experience, here are tips for everything from managing struggles around competition, to socializing, and skill-building.

1. Talk with the coach

Whenever possible, meet with your child’s coach or the staff before play begins.  

Share your child’s specific needs and offer suggestions on how the coach can set them up for success. Even offering small ideas can help, such as stressing the importance of who your child sits next to during the activity, that they need frequent breaks, or how to keep them engaged by minimizing downtime.

You can also guide them to the best way that they as coaches, as well as other parents and children, can to communicate with your child. For some children, this may mean using shorter instructions, repeating instructions, or providing strategies geared to your child’s specific learning needs. For example, some children prefer visual prompts such as signs and pictures over verbal instructions.

If your child has trouble focusing, or needs frequent feedback to keep up their interest, ask the coach to provide individual instruction where possible.

Some physical activities have more opportunity for individual instruction than others. If your child has a strong need for one-on-one feedback/attention, some individual sports or activities like dance, gymnastics, or martial arts might be a good option. Also try smaller teams or class sizes.

2. Consider a less competitive atmosphere

Every group activity is geared to a certain level of competitive play.  

As children and youth grow older, their competitive environment usually increases. The skill gap between children often grows wider as they age.

Team sports are usually more competitive than individual sports and can lead to feelings of frustration.

To keep your child motivated and engaged, it’s a good idea to find a competitive level that matches their skills. If a child feels like they’re not as good as peers they can lose confidence and interest in the activity. They may give up on participating in competitive activities altogether.  

For children with motor difficulties or Delayed Coordination Disability (DCD), competitive environments can be especially challenging. It can be more difficult for them to learn a new skill, or concentrate on new movement patterns, and may tire out more easily than their peers.

Sometimes a child with motor difficulties or DCD shows interest in a new sport only to “drop out” after a few sessions, or lose interest as they age and the skill level increases.

To ensure your child has fun staying active, try to expose younger children to as many activities as possible - gymnastics, t-ball, soccer, basketball - before the competition/skill level increases.

Consider moving to leisure sports/activities as your child ages, such as swimming, running, skating, cycling, and skiing, where the focus is on fun rather than intense skill building. These lifestyle activities can be enjoyable throughout life.  

For more information on encouraging participation in physical activities for children with DCD, see this handout

3. Lower the skill level to increase enjoyment

Choosing activities that match your child’s emotional age or skill level can significantly reduce the chance they’ll become frustrated by the activity and give up on it.  

In some cases, children can be socially and emotionally younger than their age and not equal to the skill level of their peers. That’s okay.

Simply encourage them to play with a younger age group – even a year or two younger - so they have more fun. You want to put them in a position where they can shine!

4. Practice together to build confidence

To help your child improve their skills and fitness level, practice together in a safe environment, such as your home or at a quiet corner of the park.

Whether it’s shooting baskets, or mastering a new dance move, when there are no other children around, the pressure is off.

Your child can feel more comfortable about trying out new techniques or building skills without feeling judged or stressed out.

For children who might take longer to learn a new skill, they also get to improve at their own pace, building up confidence every step of the way. Plus, you get more quality time together!

5. Look for organizations that embrace all skill levels

Some sports clubs or organizations thrive on competitive play, while others are more inclusive of a variety of skill levels, abilities, and experiences.

A good place to look for inclusive physical activity programming are community centres, local leisure centres, and associations like the YMCA. You can also try your local scouting, guiding, or cadet group.

When you do find an activity you think your child will enjoy, be sure to talk to program staff to see how they might be able to support your child in participating.  Many activities can be adjusted for various abilities.

Also look for community programs that offer support for children and youth with specific physical and/or mental health challenges, such as the Canucks Autism Network.

7. Help your child bounce back from mistakes and losses

Failure is an inevitable part of playing sports. And learning to handle setbacks and disappointments is a lifelong skill.

Many children become easily frustrated, embarrassed, angry, and devastated by losses. They can’t let go of mistakes they make during play, and are hard on themselves, and others, because of it.

Building up your child’s resilience against failure or loss can help reduce their anxiety and prevent tantrums.

Children who have a lower frustration tolerance may struggle to manage their emotions when things go wrong. Others can be easily set off in a competitive environment. In those difficult moments, offer support and a comforting arm around the shoulder instead of reminding your child what they did wrong.  

Try to reinforce in your child what they did well despite a loss or error. Lift them up, and help them to see this as a learning opportunity.

Remind them that there is always another opportunity to try again (the next race, a new game, another season). Help your child move past these moments, focus on the present and avoid dwelling on past outcomes. New day, new start!

8.  Speak to a professional to get more support

If any challenges continue to affect your child’s ability to be physically active, reach out to a healthcare professional.

The Physical Activity Line is a free HealthLinkBC resource. Just call (8-1-1) or email them, and a qualified exercise professional will answer your physical activity questions.

For example, you can get expert guidance on how to help your child progress in activities or get tailored sports recommendations

Be sure to consult your child’s doctor for additional supporting regarding their physical activity goals.

A final note about getting active and staying safe  

Creating an environment in which children and youth are active, thrive and feel safe means taking care to reduce the possibility of injury.

Some children may be more likely to experience safety concerns than others. They may have trouble with attention and focus, are unable to recognize a potentially dangerous situation, or have coordination difficulties that make them more likely to fall.

Make sure your child’s coach or instructor fully understands the nature of your child’s challenges and can provide a safe, supportive and healthy environment in which to have fun.

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