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Well-Adjusted Teens, Sans Team Sports

Well-Adjusted Teens, Sans Team Sports

By Mir Kamin

I was not a “sporty” kid. I wanted to be—I grew up in a time when a mandatory part of being “cool” was membership on a sports team—but… I’m uncoordinated and slow. Plus, I had really bad asthma, and just doing the Presidential Physical Fitness Test in gym left me sucking on my inhaler like a John Hughes movie outcast. So I played some Little League when I was still in elementary school (and here we understand “played some Little League” to mean “stood in right field picking flowers for a while and then went out for ice cream after”) and then happily gave up on sports.

Surely my children would be different. Why, their father was involved in a variety of sports, growing up, and team sports bring all sorts of benefits to the table for growing children. There’s the physical workout, sure, but also learning to cooperate, being part of something where the whole is more important than the parts, working with a coach… I would help them find the activities where they could shine. I wasn’t looking to raise Olympians, you understand, but merely to help them cultivate a healthy lifestyle with a side of physical and personal growth that they would enjoy.

We started with soccer; no, to be more accurate, we started with Amoeba Ball™. Amoeba Ball™ is what happens when you try to teach very little kids to play soccer—they just coagulate as a giant mass and move around the field together. My daughter played for two years before asking if she “had to” for another season, so I said of course not, let’s find you something else. She dabbled in dance and both kids took swimming lessons. I put my son into soccer and my daughter started Tae Kwon Do and declared it the most fun she’d ever had. He carried on the family Amoeba Ball™ tradition while she worked her way through belts and chanted “Sir yes sir!”

Then we moved. I don’t think the move was the problem, just to be clear, but the rhythm we’d hit prior to the move somehow didn’t work in our new environment. The new Tae Kwon Do studio was great, but my daughter’s interest waned. The closer she got to her black belt, the more sparring was part of her training, and she’d never liked the “fighting parts.” She began asking to quit. And soccer wasn’t working out so well for my son, either; we had a few rough years before his official autism spectrum diagnosis, and (go figure!) during that time, he was prone to epic meltdowns any time he experienced unexpected physical sensations… like, say, a soccer ball hitting him. Yeah.

My son quit soccer. My daughter quit Tae Kwon Do. I delivered an impassioned lecture to the two of them about the importance of team sports (in which I probably sounded exactly like Charlie Brown’s teacher, to their ears), and we all agreed they would try swimming for a while. I signed them up at our local Y and both of them took to it like fish. The problem was, my boy fish mostly swam around in little circles, ignoring the coach, and my girl fish did as she was told but rode home in tears after every practice, convinced she was terrible at everything and the world was a horrendous place. (I quickly learned that low blood sugar can result in Extreme Crankybutt Syndrome, and learned to stuff some food into her the minute she got out of the water, which helped a little.) They stuck out the season at my insistence, then quit.

I was left with two tweens who seemed to be following in their mother’s not-so-physically-fit footsteps, plus I agonized over all the life skills team sports are supposed to help impart that they might be missing. As the kids moved into the teen years, I realized two important things, and know they’re still getting what they need.

Exercise is important, and it comes in many forms

My son is a constantly-in-motion kind of kid by nature. We learned through years of occupational therapy that he will always do better on days when he’s had the opportunity to exercise, but we’ve also learned that his coordination (both social and physical) can make typical team sports difficult and frustrating for him. So for him, a simple “go outside and burn off some energy” is likely to get him moving around. He loves to swim (just not on a team) and bike, and on rainy days he’s still got his exercise ball (“go bounce”) and pull-up bar (“go do some chin-ups”) inside to allow for some much-needed movement. He’s also done a few seasons of Challenge League baseball (a team for kids with special needs), though he feels he’s outgrown it, now.

My daughter, on the other hand, takes after her couch-potato mama—given a choice, she’ll sit down with a book, every time. So it took some experimenting, but it turns out that she’s grown to enjoy taking the dog on long walks, because she can turn up her iPod and zone out while she’s doing it. Yoga helps her manage her anxiety. She’ll come out and swim with us, too, and then, of course, she has marching band, which is a killer workout. And that brings us to the second thing…

Teams are important, and they come in many forms, too

A good team experience is one where everyone works towards a common objective, coordination (and sometimes compromise) is necessary, and individual betterment is encouraged, but individual glory is less important than team effort. You can get all of that from sports, but I’d argue you can get that from any team activity. And as my kids turned down sport after sport, I realized that I was more concerned about their ability to cooperate and meet goals than I was about their ability to run a quick mile. Enter marching band, for my daughter (with the added benefit of exercise, too), but also enter… academic team, and reading bowl, and FFA. There are endless opportunities at her high school for a plethora of life lessons via extracurriculars. As for my son, well, he’d just as soon hang out on his own most of the time, but we finally found his flavor of team activity, too—Minecraft can be played both alone and in cooperation with others (if you have Minecraft fans on the spectrum, be sure to check out AutCraft), and in the last year he’s really started to come into his own as a Dungeon Master. Yeah, Dungeons & Dragons. Nerdy, we know, but also rife with opportunities to practice those cooperation skills that can be hard-won for kids like him.

Just because a kid isn’t cut out for team sports doesn’t mean they can’t reap both the physical and socio-emotional benefits of exercise and teamwork. You may just have to look a little harder for the right ways to do it. Viva la difference! (Or, in our family’s case, viva la nerdery. We’re okay with it.)

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • […] that’s what today’s post at Alpha Mom is all about—because I believe you can have well-rounded, well-adjusted teens who don’t […]

  • Sara Ann

    July 17, 2013 at 9:55 am

    Great points! I’m feeling pressure to enroll my son in a sports program. We’ll give it a try, but it’s nice to know there are alternative ways to get physical and learn about team work! 

  • js

    July 17, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Ugh. Just ugh. I am not sporty. I played basketball and was good but was never encouraged. I was always told how uncoordinated I was. It bothers me to this day. Girls did dance, so I tried that but didn’t like it. Standing there, pretending to be a willow tree just pissed me off. So with my daughter, I was determined. She would be good at things and I would be her biggest cheerleader. She has tried swimming, gymnastics, soccer, karate, sports camp, dance-you name it. Her favorite is gymnastics but she is not a star. She’s dedicated but also a big chicken when it comes to heights for things like parallel bars. This can be a problem, as you can imagine. My husband- who is awesome and wonderful but extremely competitive- pushes my dedicated little baby too hard sometimes and makes it NOT FUN. This leaves me shaking my head at how hard I’m pushing her to be well rounded. In doing so, I’m probably scarring her for life 😉 I’m not sure what my point is, but if my kiddo becomes a mathlete, it’s fine by me. So long as she’s having fun.

  • suburbancorrespondent

    July 17, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Let me just put in a plug for Civil Air Patrol here (ages 12 and up). Awesome team skills (in general and with their Cyberpatriot and Rocketry teams), amazing summer activities, opportunities to do real grown-up stuff (which is what a lot of teens want). My son is fully certified to participate in ground search-and-rescue missions. This summer and last, he learned how to pilot gliders. Plus, they have a lot of fun. If you have an aerospace/tech oriented teen, this is a fantastic activity.

    Believe me, without this, there would have been no team for him. I still have memories of watching him fall over slow-moving soccer balls when he tried to kick them.

  • Ladybug Crossing

    July 17, 2013 at 11:57 am

    We decided a long time ago that our kids were smart, not athletic. We focused on academics. They chose their athletic endeavors and stayed in for the season — we tried a lot of things including ice skating, swimming and even amoeba ball. 
    They both got into college – with academic scholarships. Neither is a jock, but they manage. 🙂

  • Brenda

    July 17, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    I have always hated physical activity of almost any kind. I’ve taken one or two casual swing dancing lessons and loved them, and I adore swimming, but those aren’t regular things for me. As for team stuff, growing up I had a few years in the kids’ choir at my church, and in high school I was crazy busy with Spanish Club, NHS, Drama Club, choir, Forensics, and a part time job. Turns out I really love competition, like in Forensics, and I do love to watch hockey, even though I am a terrible skater.

  • Lucinda

    July 17, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    Great post!  Validates all those who feel like sports are not the *only* way to learn cooperation and teamwork.  My husband and I don’t always see eye to eye on this.  He was a total jock.  I was not even close.  As a result, we often have differing opinions about how many activities the kids need to be involved in and how many sports they should play. Fortunately, I think we have managed to find a balance so far, recognizing the different needs of my two children.  Daughter has found the summer play to be a great creative outlet for her while reinforcing the idea that you need to work with others and can’t just quit.  My son likes individual sports like wrestling but needs a bit of pushing to go.

    The challenge next year will be keeping my daughter physically active when she enters middle school where she had to choose between music and PE.  Ugh.  That’s a whole other soapbox though.

  • Jennifer

    July 17, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    I was a chubby kid and I always felt self conscious about playing sports until I got into high school and joined the Track and Field team. I loved it and wished that my parents had encouraged me more to join a sport when I was really young and before being self conscious set in. Now that I’m expecting my first, I really want to encourage her to join sports for the fun of it. But as geeks, my husband and I will also encourage her to play Pathfinder (waaaay better that D&D but basically the same thing). While many just consider it a waste of time I think Pathfinder helps hone important skills. You learn to do math in your head (gasp! no calculator!!). You also learn team building and strategy skills. We often have real-life moral and political discussions that are set off by a situation in our game. My parents used video games as a way to bond with my brother and to help him hone his motor and reading skills. He’s also on the spectrum. It sounds like you’ve done a great job finding a good balance and I hope to be able to do that, too.

  • Ally

    July 17, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    I grew up playing year round sports through college and loved it. My husband, not so much. He doesn’t really encourage our kids with sports, and it’s hard not being on the same page all the time. I don’t really care what my kids do, I just want them to find things they love and pursue that. So far though, it is sports. My two oldest are very active and LOVE team sports. My third is two, but can’t wait to get on a field. We are about to have our fourth, and I am nervous about balancing all of them and their activities.