My son plays travel baseball, and I’m glad he does. Competition nurtures resilience, and I love seeing him jump with sheer joy whenever a teammate crosses home plate.
But here’s what I don’t love: the hours of my life lost each week taking him to practice and games (easily eight), and the guilt I (kind of) feel about making my husband go alone. When I do show up, I’m either too hot or too cold, and I feel silly shouting things like “Nice cut!”
Turns out, though, there’s a better way. If you signed your child up for sports this year, try these expert strategies to make the whole experience a little more comfortable and a lot more meaningful.
What to wear
Dress strategically: It’s not enough to ask Alexa what the weather is like “right now.” You need the lowdown for two, four, and six hours from now, especially when it comes to doubleheaders.
“The games are long and the weather can change,” said Matthew Panikkar, director of soccer at Yorkville Youth Athletic Association in New York City. Throw extra layers, rain gear (rain jackets, umbrellas, extra socks), and other necessities such as a blanket, hair elastics, bug spray, and sunblock (more on that later) in a big bag; you can always leave it in the car.
Don’t skimp on shades: A good pair doesn’t just block out the sun — it also makes the game easier to see. Brett Klika, founder of SPIDERfit Kids, an online kids-fitness resource in San Diego, used to wear his everyday sunglasses for his 6-year-old daughter’s soccer games, but when he wore his sports glasses one day, he found himself squinting less. Why? They were both UV protectant and polarized — and that means they provide more contrast and less glare, explained Rahul Khurana, M.D., spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Wirecutter’s favorite pair, the Gamma Ray Polarized Classic Style, fits the bill.
Dr. Khurana, who’s also the father of a basketball player, reminded us to put sports eyewear on children, too, to protect their eyes from sun and injuries. The American Academy of Ophthalmology has recommendations for each sport.
Embrace dorky hats: Joel Cohen, M.D., an American Academy of Dermatology spokesman, typically wears a baseball cap to his daughters’ soccer games, but when the Denver sun gets strong, he replaces it with the wide-brimmed hat he keeps tucked into his cargo-pants pockets. Our sun-hat pick, the Columbia Bora Bora II Booney, is also breathable.
What to bring
Invest in a folding camp chair: My husband refers to his Coleman Oversized Quad Chair as his throne, but what I really want is a seat with built-in shade, which also shields you from rain. “Look for straps — because you might not find parking near the field,” Mr. Klika said. If you want a suggestion, Wirecutter’s upgrade pick, the Renetto Original Canopy Chair, was always ‘“the first seat snagged” during group testing, so you can’t go wrong.
B.Y.O. food and beverages: The hot dog at the snack stand is never as good as the idea of it. Consider a rolling cooler (again, planning for a long walk from parking) for long afternoons.
For short games, a soft, sling-on-your-shoulder model — like our pick, the AO Canvas Series 24-Pack Soft Cooler — might do. Mr. Klika throws in pita bread, hummus, and deli meats so he doesn’t even have to make sandwiches in the morning (on hot days, the ice packs feel refreshing on the face, too.) Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, nuts, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, and sweet potatoes will also feed you and your young athlete without weighing you down. Also, don’t forget filled water bottles: we recommend the Hydro Flask 21oz Standard Mouth to keep you hydrated.
Employ ninja sunblock tricks: Apply sunblock every two hours. Kids often push back, but they’re more apt to put it on if they see you put it on yourself, Dr. Cohen said. He recommended using physical sunblock with zinc or titanium dioxide, which, unlike the chemical kind, blocks both UVA and UVB and works immediately. One of our picks, the CVS Health Clear Zinc Sun Lotion SPF 50, is a water-resistant physical-chemical combo formula that we found rubs in more easily than the competition. You’re less likely to miss spots with a lotion, so start the day with a generous layer of it and reserve sticks and sprays for between-game reapplications that older children can do themselves. Remember to use zinc lip protection, too.
What to do
Pay attention: Before I started writing this story, I’d bring a laptop to games. I don’t anymore. The expert consensus is that you don’t have to be at every game, but when you’re there, you should “be present,” said Rebecca Rialon Berry, Ph.D., psychologist at N.Y.U. Langone’s Child Study Center. “Minimize side conversations and tech use,” she said.
However, if you’re going crazy by the third inning of the second game (because after all, you’re human), Dr. Klika suggests listening to podcasts or audiobooks — this way, you can still keep an eye on what’s going on. Wirecutter’s pick for a pair of truly wireless earbuds (as in, there’s no cable connecting each earbud,) the Jabra Elite 65t, lets you hear both your podcast and the game.
Be chill: Cheer the effort (“Way to hustle!”), not just the outcome (“Great catch!”), said Gregory Chertok, a New York City-based sports psychology consultant at Telos Sport Psychology Coaching. Putting weight on something kids can’t control can lead to anxiety — for everyone.
Also: Let coaches coach and refs ref. Yelling instructions from the sidelines can confuse your child. “Mistakes will be made,” said Jack Wayland, head coach with Wise VA Rush Soccer, but you should let them go. You’re embarrassing your child otherwise, according to a 2011 study published in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. Kids also mimic your behavior. So encourage good plays, even on the other team, and as Mr. Wayland said, “If you’re not staying positive, then stay in the car.”
Don’t forget the siblings: Small tents — like our favorite, the Lightspeed Outdoors Seaside Pop-Up Shelter Tent — furnished with toys give tots a place to play. Dr. Klika also suggests bringing baseballs and gloves to baseball games, soccer balls to soccer games — small kids love doing what their big sibs are doing, even on the sidelines.
Know the only two things you should say after the game: “Did you have fun?” and “I loved watching you play.”
That’s what’s important to children of every age, but especially in elementary school, said Dr. Klika. If your child has a bad game, the worst time to discuss it is right afterward. Let them take the lead. Mr. Chertok suggests asking kids how they would have handled it differently, allowing them to formulate insights.
Dr. Berry, who played basketball through her teens, noted, “Unless your child asks specifically for coaching from you, listening and providing emotional support and validation for their hard work is often enough.”
Sign up for the Wirecutter Weekly Newsletter and get our latest recommendations every Sunday.
A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.