When the Olympic Games start next week in London, kids everywhere may dream of backstroking or vaulting to that elusive gold medal. It’s not all swimming and gymnastics, though.
There will be 36 sports represented at the 2012 Games, providing plenty of opportunities for parents to expose their children to something new.
Kids who aren’t obsessed with soccer or don’t play baseball four days a week instead may dabble in fencing or rugby, or discover that their life’s passion is water polo.
Here is more on six Olympic sports you probably won’t see on prime-time TV.
The appeal: All the archery in “The Hunger Games” and “Brave” has meant an uptick in interest, said Ruth Rowe, a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and the head coach of the archery program at the Bull Run Shooting Center in Centreville, Va. But don’t be fooled by what you see in the movies. Archery is deceptively difficult, she said.
Shooting correctly and hitting the target requires strength, but also focus and self-discipline. Practicing with that kind of intensity can help kids in other areas, either school or other sports, Rowe said.
“In most sports, you get yourself hyped up and get your adrenaline going before a competition,” Rowe said. “Archery is the exact opposite. It’s completely internal. You want to be quiet and calm and completely aware within yourself. Most kids have no idea what that’s like. Trying to teach that can be a challenge.”
Best for: Athletes who are looking for an individual sport or enjoy solitude.
Time commitment: Weekly lessons for casual archers. Serious competitors practice several times a week, in addition to their lessons.
The appeal: Courtesy and sportsmanship are a key part of fencing, where competitors are required to salute each other before a bout, and salute and shake hands after. Kids get a chance to play with swords with rounded metal tips in a safe, disciplined environment, and the sport really works their mental skills.
Fencing helps kids develop arm and body coordination, strategic thinking and how to stay focused in a stressful situation.
“Fencing is very technical, and practically difficult and complex,” said Janusz Smolenski, the head coach at DC Fencers Club in Silver Spring, Md. “That helps (kids) to find solutions, and it helps them focus and helps them to find the best choices. When they fence, they make their own decisions.”
Best for: Quick thinkers and those who enjoy one-on-one competition.
The appeal: Part soccer and part football, rugby is making its first appearance in the Olympics since 1924. Seven-player teams run or kick the ball forward toward their goal, on a field the same size as a soccer field.
Rugby requires players to make their own decisions on the field, and can help kids learn how to think for themselves, according to Brian Mihelic, the coach at Washington D.C. Youth Rugby.
“At every level of football, there are coaches everywhere and the players are told what to do in six-second increments,” Mihelic said. “In rugby, if you watch an international game, the coach is in the stands, with no headset, watching. The coaching is done at practice and the players make decisions during the games. It teaches decision-making under pressure.”
Best for: Kids who are looking for a contact team sport.
Time commitment: About three hours a week, including practices and games. Players at higher levels spend more time in practice.
The appeal: Sailing can be expensive, but it provides kids a chance to get outdoors, be on the water and get some hands-on experience operating a boat. There is a certain amount of teamwork involved as sailors need to communicate with one another to keep the boat going. Sailing can also be an opportunity to teach a child about wind, tides or marine life, while building the muscles they will need to operate the sails.
“Sailing puts a big premium on being able to sense the overall environment,” John Kircher, executive director of DC Sail in Washington, said in an email. “Truly good sailors will learn to connect with the wind, weather, waves, surrounding boats, balance, crew and the dozens of other things that make the boat go smoothly, safely and relatively fast.”
Best for: Multi-taskers who are able to integrate lots of information to react quickly to changes in weather and tides.
The appeal: Trampoline is more forgiving and inclusive than gymnastics and is open to a wider range of ages and body types, said Jarka Novakova, coach at Novaks Gymnastics Center in Dumfries, Va. Trampoline, like gymnastics, divides competitors based on their abilities and the level of difficulty in their routines.
This isn’t horseplay on your backyard trampoline, said Novakova, a former member of the national trampoline team in Czechoslovakia. In competition, athletes have to stay within boundaries on a 14-by-7-foot trampoline bed and get enough height to perform 10 skills in a set routine, including different kinds of flips. They are scored on difficulty, position and technique.
“It’s not as hard on your body as jumping rope or running,” Novakova said.
Best for: Kids who enjoy gymnastics.
The appeal: Water polo combines aspects of lacrosse and hockey with swimming, as teams of seven players (one goalie and six in the “field”) try to advance the ball to the other team’s goal while staying afloat in deep water.
There is some contact among players going after the ball, which is larger than a volleyball but smaller than a basketball, but like anything that involves swimming, water polo is lower-impact than running, making it easier for players to stick with the sport as they age.
“One of the appeals of water polo is that you’re playing and getting your exercise, instead of doing sit-ups or running in 100-degree heat,” said Bill Rutsch, the coach at Rockville Water Polo Club in Maryland.
Best for: Strong swimmers who want to try a team sport.
Time commitment: Heavy, even for the novice player. Serious competitive players practice 15 or more hours a week.