My son sits out his soccer games - should I be encouraging him to play more?

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Q: My son, who is 4, is on a local soccer team with kids ages 4 to 6. He was hesitant to engage during practices, but he got over that and can now participate without becoming too distracted or needing too much correction. When he faces other teams, however, he seems to get a little overwhelmed and refuses to play. I just have him stay on the sidelines with me. The coach comes around and asks whether he is ready, and he still doesn't want to play. I think he may be intimidated by the size of the field and the spectators. I'm not sure. But there's some anxiety there. He likes shaking hands with the other team and giving out the snacks at the end of the game. Last week, he said he didn't want to go to a game, and I let him stay home. I didn't make that decision too confidently, because it seems as if we are not even trying anymore. The season is over in two weeks. I can take him to practices, but should I take him to a game to try again? (He will be 5 in February.)

A: I love questions about child participation in sports because many, many, many parents go through this. The stalling, the refusals, the fear, the anxiety and the intimidation: It's all normal.

We parents say that our children are "playing" soccer, so let's unpack how a four-year-old plays. The first rule of play for four-year-olds (and for all humans, actually) is that true play usually looks nothing like soccer. True play doesn't have consequences and doesn't aim for a goal (learning or improvement). True play can be picked up or dropped pretty quickly and does not typically happen on a schedule. When you think about it, true play is the opposite of sports.

Am I saying that sports are not awesome? No! I love sports! I love team sports and individual sports. I love aggressive sports and quieter sports. Sports can change a child's life, whether it be through a connection to a great coach, the release of pent-up energy and frustration, the exquisite feeling of triumph, or the lessons learned in the bitterness of defeat. Much of life can be seen in sports. I wish every child could experience the just-right sport for themselves.

So, when I kick around the soccer ball with the nine-year-old, shoot hoops without keeping score with the six-year-old or throw a Frisbee with the 12-year-old, this is play. We are not practicing; we are having fun. We are moving our bodies, and no one is keeping track of the outcome.

But when I send my nine-year-old to soccer practice, the aim is different. It is about skill acquisition and repetition of action toward an outcome (better play and winning). And other than some whining here and there, my nine-year-old is mature enough to understand the connection of practice equalling improvement.

A four-year-old does not understand this concept.

When, for instance, a four-year-old twirls in the field and picks flowers during a game or, like your child, prefers to hand out snacks and shake hands, these are indications that the child is not mature enough to "play" the sport.

The good news here? You are a wise parent. You are intuitive enough to not push him and to allow him to sit with you, where he feels safe. You know that he is not interested in "playing" soccer and is overwhelmed. You respect this by not forcing him to go to games.

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Oh, and you will hear from the people who say, "He won't learn how to be part of a team unless you make him go!"

No.

The only thing you will make him do when you force him to play is (a) hate soccer, (b) make a scene and embarrass you, and (c) ruin the day for both of you.

As my favourite saying goes, "The juice ain't worth the squeeze."

When he is older and can handle more responsibility, then, yes, he should attend a game, even if he doesn't want to. But for now? The lesson has been yours to learn, and learned it you have. There is no error, no mistake and no problem here. Right now, your son is just too young for soccer.

It does not mean you cannot try again in a year (or two). Nor does it mean that you cannot enjoy the sport (or any sport) when it's just the two of you. Just make it real play!

Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counselling and is a certified parent coach.

The Washington Post

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