Team sports are becoming a part of almost every child's life. Many girls' leagues are springing up and boys' leagues are going as strong as ever, with over 20 million youngsters enrolled in organized teams each year.
With so many children joining teams outside school sports curriculums, John Dockery, a Harvard graduate and former pro-football player, believes parents can take a key role in ensuring the experience will be a good one. Mr. Dockery has been teaching children the fundamentals of football for over nine years and has gained a good understanding of the impact a coach and participation in a team sport can have on a child's thinking and development.
During his pro career, Mr. Dockery played for the New York Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl game and later for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 1971 he joined Joe Namath to form a summer football camp for young athletes in Hamden, Conn. He also conducts nationwide ''Nerf'' training clinics, sponsored by Parker Brothers , and does local and network TV sportscasting.
Mr. Dockery feels very strongly that parents should take more time when choosing a coach for a child interested in joining a nonschool team. A coach should be a teacher first, he believes, and understand that sports is just one part of the total development of the child, not his only focus.
Parents should question a prospective coach to find out his sensitivities, Mr. Dockery advises, to discover whether he intends to produce a winning team at all costs, or whether he has set aside any personal ambitions and has the well-being of your child uppermost in his priorities.
Answers to questions such as the following can help parents determine if a particular program is right for their child:
* Will my child play or will he end up sitting on the bench?
* Who will he play - will he be up against fair competition?
* What has happened to other children who have been on the team before? Was it a positive experience or was there a high drop-out rate?
Parents should also check to see whether the coach keeps up on the latest techniques through films and literature.
Parents themselves can sometimes be guilty of putting unnecessary pressures on their children, and a good coach can help them put the sport in perspective.
''Both parents and coaches should realize that the team belongs to the kids who are playing,'' says Mr. Dockery.
He feels children should not enter a serious youth program of full, organized competition until they are at least 10 or 11 years old, although parents are usually the best judge of when their child is ready. Placing a child into an intense competitive situation too early can be intimidating, and parents risk the possibility of the child's dropping out of the sport altogether.
''Wait until the child has developed some emotional maturity,'' he says.
The goal of early sports programs should be to teach children the basic skills of the sport, stressing proper technique and safety. These skills can be honed for serious competition later. A child's first contact with the sport should be more recreational and emphasize spontaneity and fun, says Mr. Dockery.
Some clubs eliminate scoreboards to provide a nonthreatening environment for youngsters while they learn a sport. This takes the focus away from the end result and reemphasizes the game itself. To preclude any parental pressures, some clubs even bar parents from games.
When team sports are approached correctly, they can teach children tremendous lessons. In addition to developing attributes such as strength, stamina, and discipline, children learn how to fit into a group and how to achieve a collective goal.
''If all the pieces are not working in sync the whole machine won't work,'' says Mr. Dockery. Children learn to sense this instinctively and know they have to pull together when things are not working right.
Lessons learned on the field can also spill over into the classroom and other areas of life.
''Team sports teach a child very early that if you want to be good at something it takes a lot of effort. Children learn there is a direct correlation between hard work and success,'' says Mr. Dockery.
The ability to come back from failure is another lesson often gleaned from playing a team sport. In football, for example, a child learns resiliency. When he gets knocked down, he develops an instinctive reaction to get right back up.
''If a player loses a game or drops a pass it's not the end of the world,'' says Mr. Dockery. Parents and coaches can help youngsters realize there will always be another opportunity to do better in the future.
In his own coaching, Mr. Dockery emphasizes the concept of mutual respect in regarding members of the opposing team - to recognize ''the guy out there is giving it his best shot.'' He expects his players to have a good word and a handshake for their opponents at the end of the game and teaches them to leave the game on the field.
While attitudes about team sports and children are changing, John Dockery feels the two greatest advances in the last five or 10 years have been the acceptance of soccer as an alternative to football and that women and girls can participate in intense competitive sports without being considered less than feminine.