The 11 Rules of Teaching Kids a Sport
Whether it's skiing or mountain biking or camping, these guidelines will make sure you and your child get to enjoy a lifetime of adventure together
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
“Mama, I’m tired. I wanna stop!”
My six-year-old daughter and I were biking up a washboarded dirt road straight into the wind. Our camp was still at least half a mile away when she wailed six of the most annoying words in the history of parenting: “When are we gonna be there?”
“C’mon, you can do it!” I called encouragingly. “We’re getting so close. It’s just around the next corner.”
Biking. Here was sport I’d loved since I was a little girl. It seemed to embody the very essence of childhood: motion and freedom and possibility. I want my daughters to love it as much as I did, and yet in that moment, when I lied straight to my daughter’s tear-streaked face, I realized I might ruin biking for her forever.
As parents, we wield a mighty influence over our young chargers. We have the power to teach them how to love—or hate—a sport. It’s an awesome responsibility and, frankly, a little terrifying. It’s also one of the most common pitfalls of parenting: We’re so passionate about something that we cram it down their throats and kill the joy for everyone. Here’s how to spread the love and the skills to last a lifetime.
Whether you’re teaching a child to ride a bike, ski, swim, climb, surf, or pitch, break down the sport into smaller skills and objectives. When our older daughter was first learning to ride her bike down our short but steep gravel driveway, we began at the bottom and worked our way up, moving a few feet uphill each time. This gave her clear objectives, built confidence gradually, and kept her (mostly) from flying down at full speed and landing in a bloody heap at the bottom.
Get the Right Gear
You don’t have to spend a lot, but you do want to outfit them properly and set them up for success. For biking, invest in a balance bike rather than training wheels. This will teach them to stride along on two wheels, using their feet for balance and stability, and make the transition to a pedal bike much easier. Most kids who start out on a balance or strider bike when they’re two or three will be pedaling on their own by the time they’re four. You can often try before you buy: When we started climbing as a family this past winter, we rented climbing shoes for the girls until we were sure the sport would stick. We sourced good, simple child harnesses from Black Diamond. Look for gear swaps to keep costs down.
Make It Fun
Now that summer vacation is here, the girls and I go bike riding most nights after dinner. It’s the magic hour, when the city streets are quiet and the light is golden. We keep it playful: Sometimes they ride in their PJs. Other times, we stop at the acequia that runs along the street by their school, and on days when the irrigation ditch is flowing with water, the girls roll up their jammies and play “bridge limbo,” wading under low bridges in the shin-deep water and out the other side. We’ve invented a game of finding all the secret passageways in Santa Fe—little alleys and hidden paths we didn’t know existed—and we nickname them and link them together into looping routes that we ride, girls’ choice, in different patterns and directions.
Keep the Stakes Low
Don’t push kids beyond their comfort zone before they’re ready. Beginner skiers don’t belong on black-diamond runs, and little kids won’t remember the thrill of the Class III rapid. Avoid big hazards and consequences until they have the skills and the understanding of what they’re getting into.
Learn as a Family
Sometimes it’s great to pick up a new sport together, where no one’s the expert and you’re all starting from scratch. When we joined our local climbing gym this winter, I had been rock climbing maybe a dozen times in my life but not once in the past ten years. My girls took to the gym faster than I did; from the start, they were teaching me. “Mama, you just let go and lean back!” they screamed up to me as I dangled from the auto belay, too terrified to let go and descend. “I can’t!” I called back. “Trust it!” they yelled, rolling on the floor, mortified by my wimpiness but also thrilled and empowered.
Give Them a Break
On longer sports outings, my girls will often tell me they’re tired, but I have this irrational fear that if we stop for too long, we’ll lose our momentum and won’t get going again. (Rallying kids and their gear is like herding cats.) “Just five minutes more,” I’ll say, hoping the girls will miraculously forget they’re tired and push through their kiddy bonk. Ha. This strategy backfires pretty much every time. Pushing them when they’re tired only makes them whine and fuss and ends up costing more time and tears in the end. Remember that when kids are small, their little lungs and legs don’t have the stamina of an adult. Keep kids happy by taking frequent short breaks, and anticipate hunger and thirst by feeding and watering them before they reach crisis mode.
Switch Things Up
Before high school, it’s rarely a good idea for kids to play the same sport year-round. Studies show it puts them at increased risk of injury and burnout. Use the change of season or the school year as an excuse to resist specialization and learn new sports.
Don’t Be Too Demanding
Invite them to run, ride, or shoot hoops with you, but don’t force it. This is a pro tip from Caroline Szuch, whose 13-year-old daughter, Lanie, is a champion trail runner who routinely finishes out in front of the entire pack—adults and youth alike. Szuch is a competitive ultrarunner and triathlete, but she never forced the issue with Lanie and her talented brother. “I would come back and say, ‘I had the best run. Everything was syncing.’ It works almost like osmosis, and it’s better than giving them a plan and pushing them,” Szuch says. “You should just focus on the sensation of the sport rather than an expectation to excel or win. All that pushing to win works against kids tenfold.”
Tell It to Them Straight
Don’t tell them the road is flat if it’s gently climbing. In other words, don’t downplay the challenges. Doing so is a natural if misguided impulse. Instead, tell it to them straight. Explain how far it really is, and explain what they need to do to be successful. Kids develop seriously astute BS meters and, like my daughter Maisy, will call you out on it every time. Underestimating, exaggerating, or outright lying will only cost you your credibility. Likewise, don’t patronize with false praise. “Mama, don’t tell me I’m crushing it when I’m going slow,” Maisy has told me more than once.
This isn’t lazy—it’s strategic. Kids are often more open to learning, less likely to whine, and more apt to stick it out without their parents around, and instructors are more likely to keep their cool when kids fuss or resist. My husband, Steve, and I taught both our daughters to ski before they turned two. It was purely a lark to see if they could balance on skis while gliding slowly down a slope with almost no pitch. They sucked their pacifiers the whole time and cried to go in for hot cocoa after 20 minutes. Cool. After their first season on skis, we splurged on ski school a couple times each winter. Learning from other adults gave them confidence and independence on the slopes, other viewpoints and techniques, and they always came back to us having mastered new skills.
Follow Their Lead
If you were a youth soccer star but your daughter’s way into curling, go with it. Give her the opportunity to love your passion and the freedom to choose her own. This was the best advice my doctor gave me after our oldest daughter was born. “Just bring her along everywhere with you, include her in your life,” he told me sagely. “Everywhere?” I asked. She was only three days old, and I was panicked about how to keep her safe and alive for the rest of her life. “Everywhere,” he said. “Just follow her lead. And whatever you do, don’t look up anything on the internet.”