When sport and school clash: A parent’s perspective
RACHEL DOHERTY
Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen
For some teenagers, sport is their thing. Their passion. But that can become hard for parents to balance with school as the commitment rises.

If you’re raising a sporty child, the pinch between school and sport can really start to bite in high school.

Managing more classes, more teachers and more homework can be hard to fit around the more hours demanded by their coach. There’s a point where many parents hit this roadblock and wonder what to do.

“Sport is a very valuable learning ground for how to live your life in the best way possible.”

LYNN DAVIES

When sporting dreams impact on school

For some kids, their involvement with sport is more than a run around the paddock a couple of afternoons a week and a game on Saturday morning. Their sport is consuming. Their training wedges around school, with little “free” time to speak of.

Once a child reaches a point where they’re training most afternoons and playing on weekends, there’s likely to be an impact on school. The time to do homework or research assignments gets cramped. They either have to sacrifice their dreams or give up some sleep to keep going.

It’s at this point that parents have to make some decisions. Will they allow sport to be more important than school? Will they let their child make that decision or will they step in and make it for them?

The answer will be different for every family, and every sporty kid. But it’s important to remember that they are just kids.

If you can’t chase a dream as a child, when can you?

Young people grow up in a furnace of peer pressure. It tells them that to fit in you have to do this, look like that and think this way. If your child is bold enough to swim against that current and chase a sporting goal, don’t be too quick to cast it aside.

And when you find yourself with a teary teen who’s struggling to manage all their expectations, it’s time to work out what their goals really are.

Clarifying the dream

Kids who play a lot of sport are mature beyond their years. Most of the time, anyway. They learn to make very adult decisions about what they will sacrifice and how they’ll manage their time.

To be successful, most sporty kids have developed good thinking skills. Ones that help them process a bad game or correct technique. They also develop a dogged determination that keeps them moving towards their goals.

If their sporting and school worlds are starting to collide, it’s time to get clear about what their dream is. What goal are they working towards? How long do they think it will take? What will they do if it doesn’t go to plan? What do they think they’ll need to help get there?

This conversation can’t just happen once. It needs to be a gradual process, with plenty of room to adjust the goals and rethink the plan. They are teenagers after all!

And there needs to be a second set of questions that always follow these:

  • How will you know when you’ve reached your goal?
  • What will you do after?
  • What’s the plan if it doesn’t work out? What does your next adventure look like?

“You can’t put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get.” – Michael Phelps

Taking a broader approach to education

In the western world we’ve convinced ourselves that education is something that happens in a school. Or college. We’ve focused so much on formal education that we sometimes forget the value of an informal one.

Yet there are lots of adults who didn’t follow the “right” educational pathway. They dropped out of school, got a low paying job, moved up a few steps on the ladder and then decided what they were real keen to do. Instead of studying at university in their early 20’s, they did it in their late 20’s, with a trade or job to sustain them. And they’re just as successful.

When raising a sporty child, you need to be willing to take a broader approach to education. What if the things they’re learning in their sport are part of that education?

We sometimes overlook the softer skills of a sport when watching kids play. Those abilities that develop behind the scenes. Like working in a team, following instruction, managing time and adapting to change. They learn to analyse information and problem-solve on the run. Sporty kids have a great work ethic that will make them attractive to employers later on.

There’s also the skills of their sport. A passion for playing could lead to a talent for coaching. Or spark an interest in sports science, physiotherapy or psychology. Their love of games could foster an interest in sports journalism or take them down the road of event management and planning.

School is still important. They need to work hard enough at school that they can do what they want later on without having to take the long way round. Sporting goals shouldn’t replace academic ones, but there should be a way to make room for both. Because at the end of the day, that’s what sporty kids need. Room. Room to be young and enjoy life.

Maintaining a balanced life

The average Australian works just over 41 hours a week, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. If school is our kids’ “work”, then most of them get close to that without doing much homework.

Where kids are training 15, 20 or 30 hours a week, they’re basically working two jobs. There may be fun in their sport, but there’s also a lot of hard work that takes a toll on their body and energy levels.

And that’s where we need to start thinking about helping them keep life balanced.

Most adults couldn’t work that many hours in two jobs and do them both well. So why would we expect kids to do the say too? Balancing life for sporty kids is all about working the levers.

There’s three “levers” that we need to get right if we’re going to give athletic children a change to enjoy their childhood alongside all the work:

1. Educational focus

Every sporty kid is different and will need their own pathway through school. Some kids will cope with a full study load. Others might need to do less subjects in high school so they can focus on doing them well. English and mathematics should be not-negotiables, but some others might be a choice.

There needs to be great communication between the child, their parents and school. Kids need room to ease off at school when the pressure is on in their sport, and then ramp it back up during the off-season.

2. The sporting cycle

Most sports have an off-season, a pre-season and a time for the competitive games. Where kids have big goals in their sport, their life needs to revolve around these.

The off-season might be the perfect time to knuckle down and do an extra subject at school, or slot in that phys ed class. While the competitive season could need a firm hand to make sure they’re getting enough rest and still keeping up at school.

3. The short and long-term objectives

If you take a broader approach to education, there may not be such a pressing focus on academic results. The focus of school might be more about connecting with peers outside of sport than getting a top university entrance score.

There’s nothing wrong with having an educational plan that extends a couple of years beyond school. It might not be the norm, but it’s better to have a well thought out plan, than to fall apart trying to keep up. The key is helping kids figure theirs out.

Managing the need to fit in

The one thing that can bring this all unstuck is the desire that kids have to fit in. Being the odd one out in class or at school can be hard to maintain, even if your sporting prowess makes you popular.

You only get one shot at childhood, and sporty kids should be able to look back on theirs as a special time, even if it’s a little different to everyone else’s. The adults in their life need to be flexible, to adapt the plan to fit their dreams, but to also let it go when they decide the time is right.

Success in sport requires a lot of sacrifice, and some kids will decide the price is too high. They will opt to pull out of the race and join their friends on the sideline. You might find my previous article on why kids struggle in sport helpful, but in the long run, no amount of pressure from parents or coaches can keep kids engaged.

A child who in’t passionate about their sport won’t keep up the intensity they need. They’ll take a half-hearted approach to practice and start to find other ways to spend their free time. And at that point, it’s important for parents to start working those levers again. To help them adjust their goals and start working towards a new plan.

Playing sport is a great adventure for kids that gives them some amazing life skills. But it can also be a big burden. Raising sporty kids is about helping them manage the demands of school and sport so there’s still room for them to enjoy life. To be a kid too.

What are your thoughts on the impact of sport on school? Would you let them go for it, or make school the priority?

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