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Parents can often overload their kids with after-school activities. Getting the balance right with extramurals is important. Here’s why.

Sport and other extramurals teach our children important life lessons, such as teamwork, loyalty, community spirit, artistic appreciation, and pride in our cultural heritage. Health-wise, it’s important that they are active; it’s also important to encourage their creativity. With the wide choice of extramural activities on offer, it is tempting to sign up for everything.

Find out more about extramural activities.

Pros and cons

Anne McDonald, a  Cape Town school counsellor, says: “Organised sporting and cultural activities have developmental benefits for children. However, research shows that parents need to guard against overscheduling their children’s lives.  Free play– play that allows children to use their imagination and creativity – is critical in helping them to develop socially, emotionally and cognitively.”

McDonald adds that children must be allowed to move at their own pace and also to recognise their own interests and abilities.

A Johannesburg  sports mistress points out the danger of removing the junior-school child entirely from school sport and subjecting them to professional coaching only. “These children never learn the loyalty, decision-making, and teamwork that competing for your school engenders. In the business world, corporations spend a fortune on fostering team spirit. At school it’s free!”

Concerned about children suffering from over-use injuries due to performance pressure, the American Academy of Pediatrics advocates that children not specialise in a sport before the age of 12. They  recommend that “children be encouraged to participate in sports at a level consistent with their abilities and interests. Pushing children beyond these limits is discouraged, as is specialisation in a single sport before adolescence”. The same applies to other extramural activities such as music, dance, and art.

Children who excel in extramurals

I asked several instructors what characteristics children who excel in extramurals have in common. Interestingly, they all said  talent and a commitment to putting in the time required. Most notably, however, they add that the child has to be one of those few individuals who combine a narrow focus, an overwhelming passion for their chosen discipline and a consuming drive to excel at it.

Acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell (an ex-track star) also notes these qualities in exceptional individuals: “Success depends on having the right genes and on a self-reinforcing belief in one’s own ability. But it also depends on a rare form of tunnel vision. To be a great athlete (or artist), you have to care.”

SA sports scientist Dr Ross Tucker comments: “Sports science hasn’t fully worked out what determines performance. Performance is the result of a cluster of physiological, psychological and environmental traits that are currently too complex for us to analyse. Hard work and training is one of them. When one looks at the very top level of performers, the difference made by hard work becomes the tiny difference between victory and defeat.”

That brings us to Gladwell’s other criterion for exceptional performance. Practice. He reckons that when you add 10 000 hours of focused, conscious practice to the other prerequisites, you get exceptional greatness.

Too much pressure?

“There is a lot of pressure on parents these days to provide opportunities for their children,” says McDonald. “Often these very opportunities can put families under financial strain as well as limiting quality family time. One also cannot discount the effects of hurried schedules on both parents and their children: they can lead to stress, anxiety, school avoidance and sometimes depression in children.” Too much training may eventually lead to overuse injuries in which actual damage to the bones and soft tissue occurs because the body can’t recover from the repetitive physical demands placed on it by sport activity.

Signs of overtraining in children

  • Slower times in distance sports such as running, cycling, and swimming
  • Deterioration in the execution of sports plays or routines such as those performed in figure skating and gymnastics
  • Decreased ability to achieve training goals
  • Lack of motivation to practice
  • Getting tired easily
  • Irritability
  • Unwillingness to cooperate with team-mates

Brigid Brown