Sports overload?

Dear Mr. Dad: My son is very athletic and he’d love nothing more than to play sports all day long. The problem is that it feels like we’re on the go every minute from the time school lets out until bedtime. I know how much he enjoys being part of the teams, but I’m wondering if he’s going to end up getting burned out. How much is too much when it comes to after-school activities?

A: Welcome to one of today’s most common dilemmas: How to strike a balance between giving our kids the opportunity to try new things, and the reality of running everyone ragged in the process. You mentioned sports, but for a lot of families, that’s just the beginning—factor in things like Boy/Girl Scouts, piano lessons, chess club, cheerleading, and volunteer projects and it all adds up to a lot of time in the car, with the kids noshing on fast food in the backseat, on a seemingly endless road from one activity to another.

Of course, you could make the argument that it’s better for kids to be doing tons of activities than to spend the same amount of time parked in front of the TV or a video game. Well, yes and no. What works wonderfully for one family could be a complete nightmare for another.

The TV vs. activities debate shouldn’t be an either-or kind of thing—as with most things in life, the key is moderation. Some physical exercise, some skill-building activities, some family time, some homework, and some vegetative down time are all essential. The exact mix of those ingredients is different for every child. That said, here are a few questions that can help you determine when

things to be on the lookout for, when determining if it’s time to lighten the load:

How is your child holding up? Is he having fun, or are you seeing some red flags like slipping grades, exhaustion (your child’s), or a drastic change in his level of motivation (do you have to nag him to get ready)?

What is your child’s body saying? Most pediatricians recommend that you pay close attention to any physical toll sports are taking on your child’s overall health—especially if your child is involved in heavy training or plays one sport year-round. For example, gymnasts frequently develop joint problems, and kids who pitch in too many baseball games can develop something called “little league elbow.”

Why is your child playing? If you grew up playing soccer on the weekends, there’s a good chance that you’d expect your son to carry on the tradition. So does your child play because he genuinely loves the game or is he going along with the program to please you. Talk to your child about what sports he enjoys most, and make sure to listen to the answer, even if it’s not the one you want to hear. Also, consider any other reasons your child may be participating in an activity. I know of one young boy who wants to play every sport possible because he loves trophies and medals.

For most kids, a good rule of thumb is a max of two activities at a time—say, one year-round activity, such as gymnastics or drama club, and one seasonal activity (such as soccer in the Fall and baseball in the Spring.)

At the end of the day, you’ll need to rely on those good-old parental instincts. If you find yourself (or your child) getting frazzled, it’s probably best to cut back a bit, until you get back to the point where it’s fun, rather than a chore for everyone involved.