Little Bellas ride at Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston, Vt. (Rajan Chawla Photography)

Although sports like baseball and football have been categorized as being America’s pastimes, many children (and parents) are seeking alternative ways of being active beyond the traditional stick- and field-type sports.

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), core participation in traditional sports for youth has been declining for a number of reasons, including the level of competitiveness and the risk of injury. “Many kids as well as their parents are turned off by the seriousness of youth sports in America,” said Tom Cove, president and chief executive of SFIA. “What should be play becomes work. Sometimes we lose the most essential element of sports: fun.”

Thankfully, kids today have many nontraditional options to choose from, including parkour, ninja warrior classes and rock climbing. “As we are all unique individuals, some sports may be better suited to some personalities and physical capabilities than others,” said JoAnn Yánez, executive director of the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges.

While early elementary soccer was enjoyable for Burlington, Vt., resident Olivia Hunt, it became increasingly difficult for the shy girl to relate to her teammates when sideline conversation turned to winning. At age 8, she lost interest in the sport when she had to try out for the team. “It was no longer fun for me,” said Olivia, who is now 16. This is a pattern Cove has seen more over the years. “Early-age specialization and intense competition seems to be turning some kids off,” he said. “On the one hand, it drives away new or not as proficient athletes. On the other hand, it burns out some athletes entirely. Nontraditional sports can be more casual and allow kids to be kids.”

Thankfully, the local climbing gym down the street, Petra Cliffs, was holding a summer camp, and Olivia decided to give it a try. She immediately felt at home. “With climbing I can just go and do it,” Olivia said. Through climbing, Olivia has found confidence and self-gratification that she can translate to other parts of her life. “Climbing is one of those sports that you can track your own progress. It’s obvious you are improving, and that is fulfilling,” she said. In addition, joining a friend for Little Bellas mountain bike camp helped Olivia’s personality blossom. “Besides just enjoying being outside, when I ride I can see my personal growth. I can ride trails that I couldn’t before or wasn’t confident enough to try.”

Whether trying to clear an obstacle or navigate a course, children are in control, thus creating more of a mind-body experience. This makes it easier for them to set their own goals. “Sports like climbing, cycling and running allow a child to focus on making one move at a time to achieve a longer goal,” said Michelle Flowers, a member of the International Society for Sports Psychiatry. “Successes are much more defined by personal growth than winning or victory over another. There is a sense of accomplishment in completing a project or successfully navigating a course that is inherently valuable and intrinsically rewarding,” said Flowers, who has worked with professional and amateur athletes as well as children for more than 10 years.

There is an inherent dust-yourself-off-and-try-again approach within non-conventional sports that is an integral part of adult life. “These sports allow children multiple attempts to overcome an obstacle or solve a problem,” Flowers said. “Failures are an integral part of the learning process. This can then be generalized to life experiences.”

Individualized sports can still can offer the positives that come from traditional team sports, mainly socialization and learning to be part of a team. “Part of being successful is having to be social,” Olivia said. “When you are working on a climb, you find yourself talking to other climbers about how they tackled it. Encouraging others on the wall is a part of it. Going out for a ride with a group of girls, you talk about the trail and about life.”

Lifelong participation is another benefit to these non-mainstream sports. Sabra Davison, one of the founders of Little Bellas mountain bike camps for girls 7 to 18, saw firsthand the gap that happens in sports when girls get older and team sports participation ends. “You see it a lot, especially in college. Team sports end, and then what? Through injury, age and all those things that inherently happen as you get older, mountain biking [and other less conventional sports] sticks with you.” Flowers agrees. “The physical benefits of balance, strength and agility can be generalized to multiple activities, including everyday adventures like going to the park or climbing trees,” she said. “There is a universal and timeless appeal to these sports.”

That appeal has attracted children to non-conventional sports. Some are looking for ways of staying active between conventional sports seasons, while some want to enjoy physical activity without the stress of competition. “We see a pretty strong diversity in the number of children that have participated in other sports prior to trying climbing and those that have not,” said Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, owner of ABC Climbing in Boulder, Colo. “The kids that have tried other sports tend to like the crossover training appeal to climbing and think it’s fun, while parents tend to promote climbing for their children due to its mental, physical and even cognitive problem-solving nature.”

The interest in more individualized sports has grown. In Tokyo in 2020, sports climbing, karate, skateboarding and surfing will make their Olympic debut. In recent games, golf came back into rotation, and newer events in skiing (downhill and Nordic) and snowboarding have been added. “We have observed incremental growth in participation over the last 15 years at ABC Kids Climbing, and in the last four years, participation has certainly accelerated,” said Erbesfield-Raboutou.

If you find your child isn’t made for team play but you still want them to gain an appreciation for being active, look beyond ball and field sports. “In my opinion, any activity that gives a child a solid sense of self-esteem, an understanding of delayed gratification and the benefits of hard work, can have a long-term positive impact on their mental and physical health,” said Yánez. “Exercise is part of the foundation for creating optimal health.”

Courtney Johnson is a freelance writer and mother.

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