We are a country in love with sports. The indoctrination begins early with baseball-themed mobiles hung over the crib and pink and white soccer balls handed out for first-birthday presents. Little boys and girls around these parts are dressed in mini football jerseys with No. 12 on the back and shoot at plastic basketball hoops erected in the driveway as soon as they start walking.
The dreams of raising the next Rajon Rondo or Mia Hamm start early. Then reality hits. The traditional sport choices for youth in America – football, baseball, soccer and basketball – aren’t well-suited for every kid. Some children don’t like team sports; others prefer less contact and more creativity. Fortunately, we also live in a country with many choices.
Here’s a look at some sports off-the-beaten path that may hit a homerun – or smash a shuttlecock – with your child:
Many people have lobbed badminton’s “birdies” over nets erected at backyard barbecues, but the pastime is lesser known as a competitive sport for kids that can be played year round.
“The racquet is lightweight, it’s not an expensive sport, and it’s all about running around,” says Beth Sopka, president of the Massachusetts Badminton Association.
Kids can start playing the game as early as 5, she says. The sport is a good fit for children who don’t like the aggressiveness required in contact sports. A competitor can tailor the game to his or her strengths. In other words, you don’t have to be inherently tall, strong or fast to succeed, say Sopka.
Her own son played badminton for many years and was ranked a top youth player in the country. To play competitively, kids will need to travel, which can add to the expense.
Sopka has found that the sport tends to draw some of the most interesting and nicest people around. “The traveling was also a wonderful basis for a nice mother-son relationship that I don’t think would have forged otherwise,” says Sopka.
The statewide association is working to promote more high school badminton teams and helped launch a new program at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School this year. The Boston Badminton Club also recently opened in Westborough and will offer youth lessons and a new summer camp.
“I think the major misconception is that it’s a backyard sport played with a hot dog in one hand,” says Sopka. “It has been an official Olympic sport since 1996.”
• Boston Badminton Club, 169 Flanders Road, Westborough, 508-329-1710; www.bostonbadminton.com.
• Gut ’n’ Feathers Club, 51 Pleasant St., Marblehead, 781-631-9810.
• Mike Wolfberg’s Badminton Page – www.wolfberg.net/badminton – Listing of places to play in Massachusetts, including recreation department programs.
The equipment is a major draw: What little kid wouldn’t want to play with swords?
Fencing tends to draw kids who are not as excited about team sports and who like games that require tactical thinking, such as chess, says Syd Fadner, a coach at the Boston Fencing Club in Waltham.
She says two common misconceptions about the sport are that it’s only for the rich and it’s dangerous. She says most programs will provide the equipment when a child starts out. “And it’s one of the safest sports around,” Fadner adds.
Kids can begin fencing as young as 6, and competitions that require travel are not encouraged until they reach at least age 12. The sports draws about a 60-40 split of boys to girls, and Fadner adds that it’s one of the few sports where the sexes can compete against each other on a regular basis.
Similar to badminton, fencing is a sport where each athlete will adapt to maximize his or her own attributes, and it’s not necessarily a sport where the strong or tall will be at an advantage, says Fadner.
• Boston Fencing Club, 110 Clematis Ave., Waltham, 781-891-0119; www.bostonfencingclub.org.
• United States Fencing Association – http://usfencing.org/massachusetts-clubs – Lists 26 Massachusetts fencing clubs; website includes details about the sport.
Most people over a certain age link this aquatic sport to old Esther Williams movies. But like most everything that comes out of Hollywood, the images are far from an accurate representation of the demands involved in synchronized swimming.
Svetlana Malinovskaya, coach of the Andover/North Andover YMCA Synchers, says the sport usually attracts girls, typically around the age of 8. It’s a good fit for girls who like athletics, but also like to be creative. “There is really a place for any level of commitment and abilities,” she says.
The sport requires swimming skills along with weight training, cardiovascular work and choreography. Malinovskaya says the swimmers tend to be strong students, with some studies suggesting that counting to the music, as is required for the swimming routines, helps brains to develop.
As one might suspect with a sport that rewards synchronized movement, there’s a lot of teamwork involved. The girls tend to develop strong friendships as they spend a lot of time together practicing several times a week and traveling to tournaments, says Malinovskaya. Along with instruction and travel costs, swimmers are also required to purchase bathing suits for competitions.
“Some parents call synchronized one-stop shopping for sports,” says Malinovskaya. “The girls learn teamwork, choreography, good posture, how to be graceful, endurance, strength and flexibility.”
• Andover/North Andover YMCA Synchers, 165 Haverhill St, Andover, 978-685-3541, ext. 147, www.anasynchro.org/
• USA Synchro – www.usasynchro.org/Collegiate/synchroed/associations/massachusetts.htm – A list of programs in Massachusetts. Website also offers more information on synchronized swimming.
This fast-paced sport of dueling jump ropes is perfect for kids who’ve never played any other sport. It teaches coordination, teamwork, and serves as a great workout, which is why Red Auerbach introduced the sport to team workouts when coaching the Boston Celtics decades ago.
This year, Double Dutch became an official sport of the Boston Public Schools; six middle schools formed competitive teams, in partnership with Northeastern’s Sport in Society. As further proof of its growing popularity, Double Dutch became a varsity sport in the New York City public schools in 2009 and was featured in the popular Disney movie Jump In in 2007.
What’s great about the sport, says Caitlin Geddes, outreach coordinator for Sport in Society, is that it’s low cost. All you need are jump ropes that cost $15 apiece and sneakers.
“For kids who don’t want to play basketball or football, Double Dutch is a great opportunity,” says Geddes. “The biggest thing that people don’t realize is how hard it is, and that it’s an official sport with competitions.”
Northeastern University’s Sport in Society – www.northeastern.edu/sportinsociety – Learn more about Double Dutch opportunities in Massachusetts and upcoming tournaments at Northeastern by emailing Caitlin Geddes at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 617-373-4889.
Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper.