September 21, 2022

Finding a balance between school and sports

Group of young teenager friends on a basketball court relaxing portrait

With school back in session, young athletes might find themselves trying to balance the demands of their sport with their academics. The challenge is how to prioritize the two, and what to do when things feel out of balance?

"School always comes first," said Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, sport psychologist with the UW Health Sports Medicine program.

Dr. Mirgain points out that participating in sports provides tremendous benefits for kids. Research shows that young athletes tend to have better grades, go on to college and are less likely to drink or do drugs, just to name a few. But it's important to keep perspective as well.

"Most kids won't go on to be professionals in their sport," she said.

With daily practices and games, not to mention the traveling, it can be hard for kids to find the time for homework or other activities. But, it's a challenge that presents a good opportunity to learn life lessons.

"Time management is a skill that needs to be learned," said Mirgain. "Parents can help create a supportive environment for kids to help them prioritize and make the necessary time."

Make a plan

To that end, Mirgain suggests families create a homework plan. While the plan can take many forms, the key is to identify what needs to happen each week, e.g. practice, game, family obligations, routine homework times and larger school projects.

Then together, kids and parents can look at the schedule and identify what is most important, how and when homework will get done, what (if any) activities can be reduced or eliminated and when there is time for family activities.

"It's important to remember that not only do kids need some downtime, but the family needs downtime together as well," Mirgain said. "Doing fun things together as a family, like having a movie night or game night, is really critical."

A family calendar can help, as well. Knowing when practices, games, appointments, meetings and other obligations are scheduled can alleviate everyone's stress.

Importance of communication

Mirgain suggests that parents also look for opportunities to foster open communication with their children. It can help identify potential problems early, and provides kids with the support they need. Although, she said, it can be challenging particularly with teens.

"I have one friend who knows her teen tends to open up while they are driving in the car, so she will try to create that opportunity as often as she can in order to stay connected" she said.

Family meals are another key way to maintain communication with kids. There is significant research demonstrating the importance and benefits of the family meal. Kids in families that sit down regularly for a meal tend to do better in school, are less depressed, are less likely to drink or do drugs and are more likely to have positive social relationships. But, if dinner together is unrealistic, try breakfasts. Or set aside at least one day that everyone keeps free — perhaps Sunday evenings — and make that a special dinner night.

Whether conversations take place while driving, or at mealtime, parents can help kids maintain a positive perspective about school and sports. Asking questions like, "Did you have fun at the game?", "What did you feel went well?" or "What did you learn from that setback/mistake?" can help reinforce that what's most important is the effort, not the outcome. Whether it's a lost game or a poor test score, asking kids to identify what they could do differently next time, and what they learned from the experience, can help keep things positive.

Warning signs

Despite everyone's best efforts, kids may still find themselves overwhelmed by expectations and demands. But, it may not always be apparent. Mirgain notes that there are a few warning signs, including:

  • Kids might start to have poor grades

  • They might start to demonstrate a poor attitude or lack of motivation for playing

  • They might start to give excuses to not go, or miss practices and games altogether

  • They might not want to play a sport at all any longer

When kids start to exhibit signs of being overwhelmed, Mirgain reminds parents to ask about what is going on rather than telling kids something is wrong.

"Try questions like, "You don't seem to be enjoying sports as much as you used to, did something happen?', or "I'd like to help you succeed, how can I?' " she said, and encouraging parents to delve a little deeper with additional questions about issues like relationships with teammates and coaches.

Mirgain notes that if kids are feeling like sports are chores, or they feel physically sick at the thought of going, that's a sign that it might be time to evaluate their participation. She suggests working together to help kids identify whether they feel like they're growing, learning and having fun through their participation. If they are, then chances are, it's still a good choice for them.

"The health of the child and of the family should really be at the heart of the decision-making process," said Mirgain. "Only parents and their kids will know what the best choice is for them, and it is important to recognize and support that."

Mirgain notes that it can come down to the difficult decision of taking a break from the sport, focusing on only one sport a year or trying something new.

"As adults, we are often still learning that we can't accomplish everything. It is a hard lesson, but we can help kids learn how to accomplish the most important things while taking care of their own health and well-being," she said.

If kids are exhibiting a significant change in behavior, parents should contact the child's school counselor and primary care physician for assistance in helping to identify and address the issues.