Dear Mr. Dad: My nine-year old son has no interest in practicing sports. He says he wants to play in games but cringes whenever I mention that he need to go to practices too. I’ve been frustrated at his lack of interest and want to encourage him, but I don’t want to turn him off of sports. How can I approach this situation?

A: It’s great that you’re so conscious of the risk of turning your son off of sports, which is a very real possibility.

Sports for kids are great for a number of reasons. They teach valuable lessons about teamwork and the importance of sticking with things—even if in the face of losing. They also can teach good sportsmanship. A few weeks ago, my nephew’s soccer team was slaughtering their opponents. At the half, his coach got the team together and told them not to score any more goals, but to work on passing and ball control instead. What a wonderful lesson.

Your son may not want to go to practices because he’s embarrassed that he isn’t as good as his teammates (in games it’s easier to get lost in the crowd than at practice). Perhaps the best way to help him get over this is to give him some practice in a lower-pressure environment. Playing with you or the whole family. But make sure you keep it fun. Start off with an offer to just go out and kick or throw the ball around or go for a run. Slyly slip in some skill-building as you go. The more you make sports a regular part of your family life, the more confident he’ll feel in his skills, and the less stressed he’ll feel about playing in front of others.

Another thing your son may find inspiring is to take him to see his sports played on a higher level. As you’re watching, you can talk about how much those players had to practice to get where they are. Doesn’t have to be a pro game—that’s such a high level that it may seem completely out of reach. But if you’re at a high-school or college game, don’t be shy about approaching a few players before or after the game or between periods and asking them to tell your son how hard they worked and to give him a few words of encouragement.

I think it’s a good idea to insist that your son do at least one physical activity—especially if he already spends a lot of time in front of computer, television, or game console screens. And require him to stick with it for a full season—you don’t want to send the message that it’s okay to quit when things get tough.

Encourage him to try a lot of different sports and try to keep your own sports history, with its fulfilled or unfulfilled dreams out of it. Some kids gravitate towards games with large teams, others prefer small ones. Some love ball sports, others run the other way. If your son isn’t a “ball” kind of kid, there are plenty of alternatives: gymnastics, skiing, skating, biking, horseback riding, track and field, swimming, and martial arts just to name a few.

Whatever he finally settles on, be as encouraging as possible. That means going to as many of his games or meets as you can, and cheering from the sidelines. Let the coaches do the job of teaching—shouting things like, “pass the ball!” or “keep your elbows high,” or “you better get moving,” undermines the coach and will embarrass your child.

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