Children | Fitness
September 30, 2015

How to encourage children in sports

by How to encourage children in sports

‘The Athletic Triangle’ approach places athletes at the top in youth sports with adults playing supporting roles.


With sports season already in full swing, a unique aspect of youth sports is put on display every day on fields and in gyms across the country. “The Athletic Triangle” refers to the natural relationship that exists in a youth sport setting between the coach, athlete and parent.

The athletic triangle

It is important to note that the location of the adults in the triangle model depicts them as supporting the child. Athletic programs that truly adopt this approach are appropriately child-centered (skill development, fun, physical fitness, peer network, life lessons) as opposed to an upside down triangle, which focuses on adult-oriented goals (winning at all costs, scholarships and professional contracts).

In 2011, the NCAA released a study demonstrating that less than half of one percent of all high school athletes would end up becoming professional athletes. In fact, as the famous saying goes in the NCAA public service commercial, “There are over 400,000 NCAA student-athletes, and most of us will go pro in something other than sports.”

However, I’m here to say that lessons and values learned as an athlete at any level of competition will be just as valuable in “other” life and work settings.

When done well, the athletic triangle can be one of the most life-transforming relationships your child will ever have. In addition to my parents, some of the most influential people during my childhood and young adulthood were my coaches. To this day, I remain in close contact with several of them and still rely heavily on their teachings, advice and support.

However, when done poorly, this relationship can have a devastating effect on a young athlete. In addition to the psycho-social ramifications that can result from a negative relationship with an adult in a role model position, the top three reasons kids cite for quitting sports are adults, coaches and parents. Sarcasm alert – you may notice some overlap here. I think this just shows how important our job is as adults to “do right” by our kids.

Below are some key factors for coaches and parents to keep in mind regarding participation by children in organized sports.

Encourage and maintain:

  • Fun
  • Success
  • Variety
  • Freedom
  • Family participation
  • Peer support
  • Enthusiastic leadership


  • Failure
  • Embarrassment
  • Unhealthy competition
  • Boredom
  • Regimentation
  • Injuries

In addition, here are some recommendations to ensure a positive relationship between coaches and parents to provide the best and safest experience for young athletes:

  • Consider using contracts to establish policies for team, coaches and parents.
  • Provide support and ensure player safety.
  • Encourage and work with children to do their best.
  • Maintain open and respectful lines of communication.
  • Remember that athletes are watching you. Lead by example.

It is beneficial to expose your child to a variety of sports and activities. Nurture his or her interests and help your son or daughter find what is just right for them. Also, as a parent, it’s not only OK to be involved, but it is also important. However, always remain supportive and respect of your child’s right to participate or not.

For additional tips and information please see the attached resources:
1) Injury Prevention in Youth Sports
2) Sports Safety Checklist for Parents

Alex Diamond is a Pediatric Sports Medicine specialist at Vanderbilt and a team physician for Vanderbilt University, the Nashville Predators, Nashville Sounds and several local middle and high schools. He is also the Medical Director of the Program for Injury Prevention in Youth Sports (PIPYS). This column originally published on the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital blog Wishing Well.

Middle Childhood, Tweens, Teens

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