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How Much Should Children Practice Their Sport or Instrument?

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How long should your child be practicing music or sports?

As parents, we’re always trying to make sure our children accept themselves. We teach them that everyone has flaws. Everyone makes mistakes. There’s no such thing as perfection!

Then we walk into their rooms later on and yell at them for not practicing the piano harder or being lazy during hockey practice. Practice makes perfect!

We want our kids to learn new things and to excel in extracurricular activities, sometimes even entertaining dreams of a future college scholarship. But how hard should you push your kid to practice that concerto, or throw free throws, or serve tennis balls?

When it comes to sports, the American Academy of Pediatrics says kids really shouldn’t even specialize in a specific sport before adolescence, and that pushing them too hard can cause both injury and emotional burnout. Instead, sports should be all about playing to have fun, getting exercise and learning to be part of a team. Same thing for the arts. Music practice should be about the joy of learning a new skill and exercising a different part of the brain, not beating your kids into submission. It’s not necessary to follow the path of Amy Chua. Remember her? The author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother wrote that she pushed her 7-year-old daughter to perfect a piano piece by refusing her water, bathroom breaks and dinner until she got it right.

If you’re looking for the perfect (pun intended) amount of time a kid should practice a specific sport or instrument each day, you’ve come to the wrong place. The truth is that there’s no agreement on the exact right amount of time to practice anything, no matter whether your child is a budding virtuoso or a weekend warrior. Survey violin teachers, parents, tennis coaches and the like and you’ll get widely differing answers as to how many days per week and how many minutes a day a child should practice. The only thing they all seem to agree on is that practice is necessary in order to get better at whatever one is doing.

Still, there are a few key tips parents can follow when it comes to kids and practicing:

1) Let your children have a say

It helps when children have some say in the activity. If they are playing an instrument or sport they themselves have shown interest in, they are more likely to stick with it and be willing to work a little harder. Christine Koh of Bostonmamas.com says, “Allowing your children control over activity choice can help motivate them to practice, as they won’t feel they were forced into the activity.”

2) Less is more

Most experts agree that it’s better to have your child fully engaged in practice for a shorter period of time. This is called deliberate practice, which requires intense and focused practice during which you stretch past your current capabilities. Deliberate practice is said to be much more effective than hammering away for hours on end doing the same things over and over, sometimes called “drill and kill”. Psychologist Gary Marcus, director of the NYU Center for Language and Music, says in a story at The Creativity Post that this is because when you, “… you keep practicing what you already know, instead of pushing your limits, you will quickly reach a plateau.”

3) Be flexible

You may want to sit with them and support them at one practice, and leave them to their own devices the next. One day they may practice for 30 minutes at one full sitting, and another day it might make more sense to break the practice up into smaller chunks of 15 minutes each.  “The key is to find what practice times work best for your child knowing that sticking to a routine is desirable,” says parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba. “Some days you’ll find the need to be flexible – she has a birthday party invitation, doctor’s appointment or a big test to study for. Just remember, the ultimate goal is for your child to develop that inner drive or motivation so she wants to push herself not vice versa.”

4) Some kids have innate talent and some don’t

Expert on expertise Anders Ericsson famously said that with 10,000 hours of practice, anyone can master any skill. But Gary Marcus argues that talent matters, too: “There’s probably no ‘music gene’, and certainly no gene specifically tailored to a skill like golf … but that doesn’t mean that Paul McCartney or Tiger Woods weren’t genetically blessed. Both were prodigious practicers but genetically lucky, too.”

5) Never degrade or use guilt trips

It is never helpful to guilt or degrade your children to make them practice harder. In a Psychology Today piece, psychologist Peter Gray argues that, “Real tiger mothers let their cubs play, because they know that cubs are designed, by nature, to play in ways that teach them what they need to learn to grow successfully toward tiger adulthood. Tiger trainers, on the other hand, use the whip to train young tigers to do all sorts of things that tigers don’t want to do, just for the purpose of entertaining others and showing off the trainers’ skills.”

6) Careful pushing is okay

It’s okay for your child to be frustrated, and it’s common for them to have periods of wanting to quit. Overdoing it is bad, but careful pushing can help a child grow. Hara Estroff Roman, author of the book A Nation of Wimps, asserts in an interview with Time that, “Research demonstrates that children who are protected from grappling with difficult tasks don’t develop what psychologists call ‘mastery experiences’. Kids who have this well-earned sense of mastery are more optimistic and decisive; they’ve learned that they’re capable of overcoming adversity and achieving goals.”

7) Be aware of injuries and mental stress

Watch out for overuse injuries and mental stress in both music and sports. Dr. Lyle Micheli, director of the world’s first sports medicine clinic for children at Boston Children’s Hospital, says your child shouldn’t practice more than 18-20 hours per week, even at the elite competition level. He explains that training too much can, “… eventually lead to overuse injuries, in which actual damage to the bones and soft tissues occurs because the body can’t recover from the repetitive physical demands placed on it …”

Not only that, but kids with injuries often quit a sport forever because of them. “Kids drop out of sports because of low-grade pain that is actually the early stage of an overuse injury. The pain is never diagnosed as an early-stage overuse injury because the child simply quits the program. What this may do is prejudice a child against physical activity and exercise for life.” He says the same thing is true for mental stress. Whether it’s sports or the arts or any other extracurricular pursuit, burnout can lead to depression and withdrawal from activities. Make sure your child is still having fun and has time for other things, like sleep and play.

Olympic gold medalist and gymnast Dominique Dawes, summed it up best in a recent interview with Fox News, saying, “I really think it’s all about encouraging your children to find their passion, to be committed and learn about discipline, and more importantly, just have fun at what they are doing.”

Photo credit: iStockPhoto

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