Balancing Organized Sports and Outdoor Time

My family of seven children loves to spend hours on hiking, camping, backpacking, biking, and other outdoor activities. My five oldest kids also spend about 5-10 hours a week between November and March playing competitive basketball. Balancing organized sports and outdoor time has been a constant challenge for us.

As my kids have grown and sports have become a bigger part of our lives, it’s been important to me to continue to prioritize outdoor activity, including unstructured time. I know we don’t do it perfectly, but we’ve found some ways that allow us to enjoy both of these things that we love.

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Sports and Nature are Unlikely Teammates

Getting outside has some amazing proven benefits. Among them are reduced anxiety and stress, increased physical health benefits like stronger bones and lower risk of diabetes, a more active overall lifestyle, and an improved academic and cognitive performance.

Guess what else provides these same benefits? Organized sports.

Five children in basketball jerseys pose together for a photo.
My five competitive basketball players.

And neither sports nor outdoor activities stop there! They both also help boost confidence and give participants a sense of purpose and connection with others, as well as an increased sense of social responsibility.

These perks aren’t just temporary either. Establishing active nature and sports habits with your children sets them up for a long-term lifestyle that will not only provide direct and tangible advantages, but will give them an increased overall life satisfaction.

Hard to Keep a Balance

But wow, balancing organized sports and outdoor time can sure seem impossible! I know from personal experience, both as a youth participant and now as a parent, how challenging it is to reap the benefits of both of those sources.

Sports are a Machine

Youth sports are a huge operation. They can easily take all your time and all your money if you get swept away in the powerful current of endless practices, games, and achievement-driven culture.

The average American kid spends more than 11 hours a week in organized sports, and parents spend an average of about $900 per year per child on travel, equipment, and training. That’s not a particularly great balance.

Several children crowd around a women holding dollar bills, clearly asking for some.
My kids begging for concession cash at a basketball game.

Sports Aren’t All Roses

Most kids quit sports after 3 years, often because they started playing for fun and friends, and their parents or coaches push them to become more competitive than they want. What starts as a low-key activity becomes an all-consuming experience and kids want out.

Keep reading though, I actually love youth sports. 🙂

Sports vs. Nature

Balancing organized sports and outdoor time can also seem impossible because their very nature seems to be in contrast. They can truly seem to work against one another.

Many people equate time outdoors with feelings of freedom and schedule flexibility. I love that about nature myself and cherish it for my children–the completely unstructured joy of being outside breathing in fresh air and feeling the sun on our faces.

A young girl stands on top of an outdoor basketball goal.
My daughter quite literally balancing sports and outdoor time.

Contrast that with set practice and game times, often scheduled on nights and weekends when you might rather be taking your kids on a hike, and committing to an organized sports team can feel pretty unappealing.

So Why Even Try Sports?

As kids get older, getting outside regularly for unstructured free play comes with new challenges. It’s certainly not impossible, and is still hugely beneficial! TMM Team member Cait has an awesome post that highlights some great ways to get teens outside.

However, older kids also have a growing interest in social activities with peers. For tweens and teens, it’s hard for unstructured outdoor play to compete with time with friends, whether it’s via texting, video games, or just old-fashioned hanging out in a family room.

Schoolwork loads also increase with age, limiting the free time that kids have. If that isn’t enough, physiological changes mean that older kids in particular might be more inclined to spend the free time they have lounging rather than exploring the outdoors.

Two girls in jerseys pose with huge smiles and a basketball state championship trophy.
My teen and pre-teen daughters after a big win.

Sports to the Rescue!

In the face of the challenges mentioned above is where organized sports can really shine! Balancing organized sports and outdoor time starts with finding ways to incorporate the best of both worlds into your lives.

Get Activity on the Calendar

When I was struggling to get a regular exercise routine after my last baby, I signed up for a weekly class at the Y and let the calendar be my boss. Now, 6 years later, I almost never miss and it’s just part of what I do each week.

Without regularly scheduled practices, it’s all to easy for teenagers to default to devices and other inactive habits. That little kid who could run around the park for hours may now be a teenager who struggles to stay engaged outside for 15 minutes without a specific purpose.

Sports teams can provide great activity structure for kids and teenagers who don’t have their same endless preschooler energy but still need to be physically active. Kids who play sports are 8 times more likely be active as adults–that’s an amazing life habit!

Manage Time and Build Strong Friendships

Kids on sports teams also tend to develop better time management skills, which can be a major boost to your outdoor time! Developing that skill can mean that when they do have free time, it is *actually* free for some fun outdoor family activities.

Sports are also a great source of friendships. Facing a physical challenge with others is a huge bonding experience, and knowing how to push through hard things together translates well to so many outdoor activities. Bring those teammates along on your next hike and enjoy it all the more!

A row of kids sit on the sideline of a basketball court, heads turned toward the game.
My daughters watching their siblings play basketball, alongside several friends.

Playing on a sports team also helps kids know and understand their bodies better, another crucial component of outdoor activities. The mental and physical benefits of organized sports fit in just right with an active outdoor lifestyle!

Ideas for Balancing Organized Sports and Outdoor Time

Despite the challenges that come from including sports, I hope you can see that there are some pretty amazing benefits as well. If you are an outdoor family who also loves sports, here are some strategies for how to accomplish both.

Delay Competitive Sports Until Age 8 or Older

Sports training is starting younger and younger. Gymnastics classes, soccer teams, and more start as young as 2 years old at introductory levels, and it often doesn’t take long before families are signing up for more competitive programs.

Research has continually shown that kids are not developmentally ready for competition before age 8, and that it can even be detrimental to growth in their sport as they focus on winning rather than improving. It can be hard to hold out against pressure from teams and even our kids, but it is the right thing for them to wait.

Balancing organized sports and outdoor time includes making age-appropriate sports decisions. Staying out of competitive sports in the early years gives your family more time for those camping trips, playground outings, and hiking adventures.

Two young boys watch a basketball game, one with his arm around the other's shoulders.
My 9 year old competitive player and my 6 year old non-player who is waiting for his time.

Kids Will Catch Up

Some sports are better to keep recreational until age 10 or older. I was a synchronized swimming coach for several years, and in my experience, the kids that started at age 7 had little to no advantage over kids who started at age 10, once the 10 year old had been on the team for a year. Often they even surpassed the kids who started younger, because they were excited about learning the sport at an age where they were mentally and physically ready to take it on.

My husband coaches basketball, and he would say the same thing. Our team actually won’t allow kids to join before age 8 because they just aren’t developmentally ready for the focused practices and game strategizing that come with a competitive team experience.

Kids will catch up with their peers and be able to enjoy the competitive experience more if they wait until *at least* age 8 to take it to that more intense level.

Recreational Leagues Provide Exposure

That doesn’t mean kids can’t join a sports team before age 8! Just keep it recreational. The YMCA is a great place to participate in sports at a low-key level (you don’t have to be a member to join their youth sports teams), or google search rec teams in your area.

Recreational sports focus on skill development and rules education, and often have same-day practices and games. They also often have set player rotations to ensure that all players get equal time in the games, the games sometimes are not scored, and the “seasons” are typically short.

Two smiling young children hold recreational basketball trophies.
Two of my kids at the end of their rec league season. Yes, everyone got a trophy.

It is hard (but not impossible!) for kids to join a competitive team if they have not had previous exposure to a given sport. Rec teams are a perfect way for families to try a sport with minimal time and expense, reaping the benefits of activity and friendship without turning over their lives.

My kids have played in a lot of recreational sports, and it sometimes can be painful to stay at the rec level until age 8 or 10. But we’ve seen firsthand the difference it makes! They’ve been able to try multiple sports that we didn’t end up pursuing, and with not much invested, it was nothing lost and experience gained.

Give Younger Kids Freedom

Even recreational sports teams are not necessary for very young children. Preschoolers can prepare for a lifetime of sports and nature enjoyment by just playing, getting stronger, and becoming more coordinated.

Let them climb trees, swing on swings, learn to ride a bike and swim! That overall physical development will prepare them to be an awesome soccer player more than being on a U5 soccer team. Time outside in nature is honestly the best preparation for sports that very young kids can get.

Lots of families put their kids on skis almost as soon as they can walk. We give our kids basketballs to play with when they are very young. But we don’t put our kids on even a rec basketball team until age 5 or 6 because we would rather wait on even that much of a commitment, and they are still developing skills that help them in sports by simply being kids.

Choose One Sport or Sports Season

Another strategy we have utilized for balancing organized sports with outdoor time is choosing one sports season in which to be competitive, rather than competing year round.

Our family loves to hike, camp, and backpack, with a side of swimming and biking. Those are generally warmer-weather activities, so we’ve chosen a competitive sport that mainly takes place in the cooler months–basketball. We join some summer rec teams like our neighborhood swim club, but only if they are not a big deal to miss when we have outdoor plans.

Two teenage girls in competitive swim gear joyfully embrace after a race.
My teenage daughters after a summer rec swim team race.

Consider what outdoor activities your family especially wants freedom to enjoy. Do you like to ski? Think about joining a baseball team which has a summer competition season. If you are like us and use those summer weekends for camping, hockey and basketball are great winter sports.

Of course you should consider your kids’ interests as well! But many kids like a wide variety of sports and will enjoy any number of sports, especially when they are young.

If you find that they really have a love for a particular sport that is not ideal for your outdoor plans, you can re-evaluate as they get older. Up until middle school age and sometimes even older, kids can move between sports fairly easily, even at a competitive level.

Don’t Play Year-Round

Even though some sports like baseball and hockey have a traditional season, every sport is becoming more and more year-round. Off-season training or private lessons mean that if you want to, you can turn a 3-4 month sport into a 12-month commitment.

Coaches might tell you this is the only way your kids can get an edge in their sport and compete at the highest level. Research tells a different story–one that has kids quitting over burnout and injuries.

Some good general rules of thumb are to limit weekly participation hours to less than your child’s age (e.g. a 10 year old should not be playing more than 10 hours/week), have at least one day off every week, and take at least 3 cumulative months off of competing throughout the year.

Just Say No

You CAN say no to off-season leagues and commitments. Kids can still hit up the gym or the field in free time and advance their skills without participating in a highly competitive and structured off-season program. They can also benefit from time off and need parents to make sure they get it.

Again speaking from my own experience as a coach’s wife, players that don’t get a break are tired. Their bodies, still growing, need weeks and months without competing in their primary sport, both to recover from the rigors of competition and to enjoy and develop other hobbies, like outdoor activities!

A young girl climbs on boulders in a desert setting at sunset.
My daughter becoming a better athlete by playing on boulders.

Better for Kids, Better for Teams

Kids who get pushed to be competitive year-round at a young age are more likely to suffer overuse injuries, especially if they focus on just one sport, and they are also more likely to quit their sport because they are overwhelmed and exhausted.

You aren’t setting your kids back by limiting their off-season sports commitments, you are actually giving them the right support they need to be better athletes and better teammates in the long run.

Freedom to Stop

Giving kids a true off season also gives them a chance to evaluate if they want to continue in a given sport. Many kids will compete in a sport longer than they are enjoying it because of the time and money commitments made, but by showing that your family has balanced priorities, you give your kids the freedom to choose otherwise.

Balancing organized sports and outdoor time is not only better for life enjoyment, but it’s also key to making sure your kids keep their trajectory of healthy growth and development. They will ultimately become stronger with an enforced break from competition.

Choose an Outdoorsy Sport

Another way to keep sports and nature in balance is to choose an outdoorsy sport. Depending on where you live, your kids could participate in a wide range of outdoor sports. Skiing, mountain biking, rock climbing, open water swimming, orienteering, and more all have competitive options.

There will still be practice and competition commitments instead of complete freedom, but this type of sport is a great way to advance interests in the outdoors while also leaning into the best aspects of sports–community, commitment, and confidence.

If your family enjoys one of these sports and would like to take it to a competitive level, google search teams in your area. You might also end up with great friendships with like-minded outdoorsy parents, made while hanging around at practices.

A group of youth backpackers rest in the woods on a sunny day.
A break on a backpacking trip with basketball friends…during a break from basketball.

Choose an Individual Sport

Balancing organized sports and outdoor time can also be achieved by choosing an individual sport. Golf, tennis, swimming, weightlifting, martial arts, and others are sports that are less reliant on all team members practicing at the exact same time.

If your family has a really fluid schedule due to outdoor adventures, talk to your child’s coach about how they can make up practices and keep pace with teammates on a flexible schedule. Your coach may be willing to have your child get a swim workout in on a Sunday evening alone, so that you can miss Saturday morning practice for a camping trip.

This approach does take some self-discipline to stay consistent, but with good family support, it can be a great way to continue enjoying the outdoors as a priority year-round, while also competing in sports.

Set Family Standards

When I was growing up, the club team I was on occasionally had Sunday practices. My parents told my coach I was not able to practice on Sundays, and I didn’t attend those practices. You can set the limits when it comes to keeping a sports and nature balance.

For our children, we have our own set standards, like not playing in summer basketball leagues and prioritizing camping over practice until the end of October. We also signed up for a club that doesn’t practice or compete on Sundays.

You can set standards for your family as well! It could be no Sundays (or another day of the week), or no more than 3 days a week, or every June off. Maybe it would mean finding multi-age or co-ed teams so that your children can always be on the same schedule.

A dad and his seven children all gather together inside a basketball gym.
Our entire family at the gym together.

Communicate With Coaches

Sports teams do need consistency. It can be hard on teams when kids don’t show up for practice or games, but it’s even harder when there is no communicated plan. If you want to join a team but have certain times of the week or year that are off-limits due to family outdoor activities, talk to the coach.

When you need adjustments to the schedule, discuss them with the coach well in advance. If they can work with it, they will. If they can’t, the advance notice should help all of you figure out what you are willing to give.

A Sabbath-keeping family approached our basketball team about joining and explained their limit of not being able to compete on Saturdays, one of our primary game days. The leadership was able to discuss that with them ahead of time and they concluded it was not a fit before any time or money was invested. Communication ahead of time is key.

Recognize the Commitment

At the same time, when your kids are in organized sports, it is a commitment. If you want to be free to go off on a hiking trip or backpacking adventure at any moment, it may not be possible for you to commit to a sports team as well.

You can’t have everything at every moment, but your family can participate in sports and also enjoy outdoorsy freedom if you are able to set aside certain days or times of the year for those commitments.

If you have children that want to play sports, establishing those freedom and structure limits for your family can be the way to get the best of both worlds.

A small boy with a walking stick stopping on a trail, while a group of adults and children walks ahead.
Enjoying a late fall hike between games at a park near the gym.

Ideas for Sports Season

In our family, competitive sports season is from November to March, and our primary outdoor activities take place from April to October. I encourage and sometimes require outdoor time during those basketball months, but we also don’t stress over it every day.

Sometimes, though, everyone needs to get out, and even a game day can be an opportunity!

Find a New Outdoor Location

Even for older kids, a new-to-them playground can be a fun mid-competition break for an hour. If you have a lengthy competition day and there is a long enough break between events to leave the site, check online to see if there are any playgrounds or parks nearby.

Kids standing on frozen over puddles in a woodsy setting.
Stopping to explore some frozen puddles before an out of town game.

Eat lunch, play tag, or just watch the clouds float by for a while. Everyone, even your athletes, will benefit from the fresh air and non-fluorescent gym lighting. Just 15 minutes outside can give everyone a new burst of energy for the next game.

Eat a Good Meal

Okay, this isn’t specifically related to the outdoors, it’s just a good general practice hard-learned from years of basketball seasons. It will help ensure that your kids (and you!) are getting the the nutrition you need to stay healthy for both sports and outdoor adventures.

Whatever daily meal you can eat at home, make it a hearty one.

It’s really hard to eat well during a competitive sports season. A lot of practices and games take place at mealtimes and can mean scrambling for food both before and after competitions, which often isn’t the best and most well-rounded nutritionally.

So if you’re home only at breakfast time during the day, make it especially hearty and well-balanced. Find some good recipes (like this egg casserole and this baked oatmeal) or add some protein alongside your pancakes.

I’m home with my kids during the day, and if you are too, or have time before they leave for practice, make a full dinner-style meal, even if it’s 4pm when they eat it. I actually have an alarm set on my phone to remind me to make dinner at 3 o’clock so it will be ready before they have to head out.

This practice, intended to help our in-season nutrition, has actually been a big boost to our eating habits for outdoor adventures too!

Camp Cook at Competitions

Your outdoor kitchen can actually come in handy for sports season as well. You can bring easy camping trip-style meals along to practices and competitions, and cook as you go! A lot of the meals I make while camping, the kids have also eaten at the gym.

Sports and Nature are Friends

Balancing organized sports and outdoor time is possible and can even be beneficial for your kids and your entire family. Truly, some of my dearest friends are those I have connected with at basketball, who also have a shared love of the outdoors.

Three women carrying backpacking equipment stand on a large rock above a forest.
Backpacking with fellow basketball moms and dear friends.

Participating in sports teams is a sacrifice, there’s no way around that. But there’s also no way around that in life. We have to make choices based on our priorities, and for many, the choice to commit to sports has been a good one in both the short and long term.

With intentional planning, you can enjoy the benefits of sports without losing out on the advantages of adventuring outdoors.

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