Sports Give Kids a Head Start in Life

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Club teams can help children to develop the collaborative and social skills crucial to their future success

SOME KIDS START playing organized sports as early as 3, which sounds pretty young when you say it out loud. However, it’s around that age when children need to develop collaborative and social skills, says Dr. Kristi Hofstadter-Duke, children’s behavioral psychologist at Savannah Behavioral Pediatrics. “It can be a really helpful, pro-social activity.”

Anne Weisel’s son, Ben, in fact, was that prime age of 3 years old when he toddled onto the soccer field, following after his father, who had played soccer in college and later coached at the college level. “Ben grew up around soccer and was headed out on the field with Dad and hanging out with the big kids a lot,” she says. From there, it was a fairly easy decision for him to start playing soccer with Savannah United Soccer Academy when he turned 8. 

Goalkeeper Ben Weisel blocks a corner kick.

Similarly, Dana Reeves’ daughter, Carson, followed in the footsteps of her late aunt, who was a volleyball coach in West Virginia. Even though Carson had been committed to dance from age 4, training in ballet and lyrical, her close relationship with her aunt kept her in touch with volleyball. When Carson was 12, she started playing recreational volleyball. Next, she played for her junior high team at Richmond Hill Middle School and also joined the Club Savannah team. By the time she was halfway through her first year of club volleyball, she had dropped dance completely: she had fallen in love with the sport.

Of course, not all kids want to follow in a family member’s footsteps. This was the case for one of Emily Stigall’s two daughters, Sara and Rachel. Since Stigall swam all the way through college, her natural inclination was to sign her daughters up for the summer swim league in 2019, when Rachel was 5 and Sara was 6.

While they both took to the water, it was only Sara who wanted to swim in the meets. Rachel much preferred to hang out off to the side and play in the smaller pool. She had another sport entirely on the brain: gymnastics. “Even though I was a college athlete and really wanted my kids to be swimmers, taking a step back and listening to my kids [was more important],” Stigall says. So, she took Rachel back to “that place where they did the cartwheels.” 

LEFT: Sara Stigall, RIGHT: Rachel Stigall

“I think the best advice I can give anybody is to go into it embracing the moment you’re in.”  — Anne Weisel

Sometimes it’s not only the young person learning a new sport but the parent as well. Had Stigall not given Rachel a choice, the world of gymnastics would’ve remained a mystery. “As a parent, as much as you were the football captain and you really want your kid to play football, they might not want to do it,” Stigall says. “And that’s okay because it led her to gymnastics, [something] I probably would have never just naturally put her in.”

But Rachel was far from a fish out of water. After seeing Rachel flip and tumble, Summit Gymnastics asked if she’d like to try out for the team. Now, at just 7 years old, she’s already qualifying for state-level competitions. (Sara, for her part, swims competitively with Georgia Coastal Aquatic Team and has also qualified for several events at the state level).

But what about burnout? Before she had committed to swimming, Stigall herself played basketball, softball, volleyball and even cheered for a bit, embracing the freedom of youth and choice. Stigall puts it plainly: “Figure out what you want but don’t limit it to one thing. Try out everything when you’re a kid.”

Ben Weisel (in red shirt)

It was a lesson that 13-year-old soccer player Ben took the initiative to learn on his own. Ben had been surrounded by and involved in soccer since he was a toddler; that’s essentially a decade of eating, living, breathing dedication to one sport. He hadn’t tried any other sports and ultimately took a year off from soccer. “It’s probably the best decision we made as a family,” Anne Weisel recalls. 

During his hiatus, Ben played basketball and ran cross country for his school, St. Andrew’s. Sure, he enjoyed expanding his horizons, but he also discovered different strategies and skills that he could apply to soccer. He bolstered his personal motivation and avoided stress injury by stretching his body in ways that soccer hadn’t allowed, Weisel says. By the time spring rolled around, he was eager to get back on the field, easing in by picking up some goalkeeping sessions at Savannah United. “We took a step back and let him have that [time],” Weisel says, “and he realized how important soccer was to him for himself, not just because Mom and Dad signed him up for it.”

Hofstadter-Duke agrees with Weisel’s assessment. “Regardless of how great the coaches may be, or how much emphasis there might be on collaboration and all those good things that we want to teach, if it’s not interesting to children, they’re not going to participate to the fullest,” she says. Often, it doesn’t take much to know a child isn’t interested. Sometimes, they’ll even just come right out and say it, much like how then-5-year-old Rachel told her mom “No, I’m good,” when asked to join a summer swimming league with her sister. 

Carson Reeves

Just as a family can support a child’s decision to take a break, sophomore Carson Reeves’ family supports her in her drive to step up. Outside of Club Savannah and the school volleyball season, she puts in intense hours of hard work through clinics, college camps and training programs. At the start of any given school week, she’s often communicating with teachers on days she’ll miss because of tournaments. During long car rides to and from games, she’s completing as much schoolwork as she can while bonding with her mom.

Dana Reeves’ job requires lots of travel, but she flies from work conferences to Carson’s tournaments, or vice versa, trying her best to never miss seeing her daughter experience the joy of all her hard work paying off.

“It’s a lot of money to spend and a lot of time to give as a family,” Weisel says (Reeves would surely agree). “I think the best advice I can give anybody is to go into it embracing the moment you’re in.” And if good things come down the road? Says Weisel, “ that’s just worth celebrating down the road.” 

Keep Going

Nurture kids’ athletic prowess with these competitive youth sports and activities.*

*Not an exhaustive list. Other training opportunities and clubs for a wide variety of other sports, including golf, sailing, softball, tennis and more, are available throughout the area.