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Olympics May Inspire Children to Try a Sport

September 25, 2000|STEPHANIE OAKES

The Summer Olympics in Sydney may be taking place on the other side of the world, but for kids watching them on television and reading about them in the newspaper, they're as captivating as if they were being played in their own hometown.

I can recall watching Olympic gymnastics for hours as a kid. The excitement held me and my friends mesmerized. When the athletes prepared their dismount from the uneven bars or the balance beam, my palms began to sweat--would they make their landings stick? We rooted for the Americans to win the gold, or maybe even all three medals.

These competitive games played by supreme athletes have an unparalleled ability to inspire millions of children worldwide to take up sports--in their backyard, at the park or in the pool. The superstars such as Mia Hamm (soccer), Mary Lou Retton (gymnastics), Michael Johnson (track) and Dorothy Hamill (figure skating) have made many of us enthusiastic about sports.

Historically, the Summer Olympics have increased interest and enrollment in the United States for gymnastics, swimming and diving. However, after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the National Soccer Assn. also recorded a 35% increase in enrollment among girls and boys. Winter Olympics usually spark enthusiasm for skiing and ice skating.

"Not every child is going to become an Olympic athlete," says Ken Germano, executive director of the American Council on Exercise, "but we need to get them away from the television and turn them on to exercise and fitness, especially since 63% of kids are no longer physically active by the time they reach high school, which is part of the reason about 20% of U.S. children are obese."

This newfound interest can help children develop their muscles, coordination and a lifelong love of sports. However, athletes-to-be, whatever their age, first need physical and emotional conditioning. Even regular exercisers undertaking a new sport, using different sets of muscle groups, need to know how to prepare for the sport or when not to pursue it if the activity just doesn't fit their needs or interests.

The key is to communicate with your kids so they'll discuss their feelings about the sport along the way. The last thing we want is for children to be forced to do a sport they don't particularly enjoy or to do it past the point where it's fun.

I see many kids maintaining rigorous training schedules for sports such as soccer, figure skating and gymnastics, while still trying to be "normal kids." Because the intensity can take an unhealthy toll on some kids, be realistic with your child's training schedule. Sports shouldn't leave kids so spent that there's no time for homework, family or other types of fun.

But with proper limits, there is no question that exercise is good for growing children. A survey led by Russell R. Pate, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina, found that of 14,000 teenage boys and girls, those who participated in team sports were less likely to use drugs, smoke, have sex, carry weapons or have unhealthy eating habits.

So if your kids find at least one Olympic sport that they want to try, that's great--they'll be pursuing an activity that helps them stay physically, and maybe emotionally, fit.

This doesn't necessarily mean that your 5-year-old should play competitive basketball or that you should encourage an uninterested child to take up gymnastics. The key is to introduce a variety of physical activities to help them find a sport that fits their needs.

Keep in mind that young athletes are more susceptible to injury because their bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments are still growing. That is why children need trained instructors for gymnastics, weightlifting, soccer, swimming, dancing, wrestling and other activities.

Many injuries can be prevented by avoiding overtraining, sitting out when in pain and taking time out to rest. These are especially critical for youngsters who make a competition of outlasting everyone else. Other safety measures include proper gear. Helmets, pads and mats are too often ignored.

But before you buy state-of-the-art sports gear and hire a coach for what you hope is the next world-famous athlete, sign your child up for a season of soccer or several gymnastics or swimming classes at your local YMCA. You don't want to invest a lot of money in a sport that could hold no interest in two weeks--that puts pressure on you and your child.

As your children experiment and eventually find their true passions (whatever that may be), it's important to concentrate on their successes, not their failures.

Try to attend or coach as many of your children's games or meets as possible; this will give an added boost to your support and show your encouragement.

Praise what they do well and provide opportunities for them to succeed. Remember that athletes inspire, but parents are the true role models.


To help your children pick a sport or to find out more information about an activity, try the following resources:

* YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles: Local Ys have a wealth of sports and fitness activities. Call (213) 380-6448 or go to

* This Web site provides doctor-approved health information about children and adolescents. Go to

* Sports Illustrated for Kids: The online version of the magazine has lots of facts, trivia and activities for the sports-minded kid. Go to


Stephanie Oakes is a fitness correspondent for Discovery Health Channel. She can be reached

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