September 27, 2016 · Posted in K-5 Kids, Parenting, Play, Pressure on Children, Teens · Permalink · Comments Off
By Dr. Andrew Jacobs
One of the most popular questions young parents are asking currently is what is the best age to sign my child up for organized sports participation? This is an issue I have discussed for years with parents, sports administrators and coaches. In today’s social environment, there is more and more pressure to get your child signed up at earlier and earlier ages. Leagues are being formed in many sports for ages four and five, for both girls and boys. For many, the pressure to get their child signed up can come from a variety of sources. Often, parents of youngsters just starting nursery school or kindergarten will feel they need to sign their child up because everyone else in the class is doing it. Social media has made youth sports accessible to almost everyone and the benefits of youth sport participation in a healthy scenario tremendously outweigh the detriments. Many are inundated with information about youth leagues in almost every sport and often feel the need to get involved or face the stigma of having their child “fall behind”.
So if you are interested in signing your child up at an early age, what should you be looking for? There are several factors that can play a role for young children when they start a sport activity. First, I remember a discussion I had with a very prominent college basketball coach. He told me that he thought all young children should participate in both an individual and a team sport. He emphasized that he felt individual sports really helped develop self-confidence, self-esteem and independence, while team sports helped tremendously with learning about sacrifice, communication, selflessness and sharing. Second, there are several factors I believe you should look for when deciding what kind of sport and organization to sign up with.
Let’s say your child is interested in a team sport like soccer, basketball or softball at age four or five. First, find out why they are interested. Many kids get excited after watching a team play on television or at an actual competition. Many want to play because their parent or older sibling participate. Check out what is available in your area and school district. Look for sport programs that focus on teaching skills and development with an emphasis on having fun. Check out the background of the coaches. Speak with parents of others who have had children coached by them. Your first negative warning sign will be if the coach talks a lot about winning and beating other teams. Also, at this young an age, stay away from coaches that want more than two practices a week. Your child will quickly lose interest at that age. Initially, it will be best to give your child some private lessons at a club that specializes in that sport. It would be best to give your child the opportunity to learn the sport on an individual basis before signing up to be on a team. However, often that opportunity is not available or is a possibility financially. The next option is to sign up on a team through the school or park and recreation department. But, make sure you take the time to find out about the league and the instructor/coach. Find out about the coaches goals for the team. As I stated before, if winning and losing are emphasized, run away as fast as possible. I have seen children’s self-confidence destroyed and the desire to play again ruined by coaches who are interested in the score and results, rather than on teaching skills and HAVING FUN.
If your child is interested in an individual sport, find a program through a sport club that specializes in teaching that sport. Check out the instructors and make sure you stay involved. Many like to drop their child off and not stay involved as if it is childcare. Practice the sport with them when you can and encourage them to have fun doing it.
There is no right or wrong age to start your child in a sport activity. Don’t let the pressure you feel from others to result in signing your child up before they are ready or excited about it. Many successful professional and Olympic athletes didn’t start their sport until the end of elementary school or the start of middle school. However, lately I have been hearing from many parents and coaches about starting their child on an organized team at ages two or three. My personal and professional opinion is that children younger than four aren’t mature enough or emotionally, psychologically and physically developed enough. Give your child the opportunity to play with other children their age. There is no reason to have them on an organized team before kindergarten. One of the main reasons leagues are starting for younger and younger ages for boys and girls in many sports is because someone is making a profit on it. As I previously stated, I don’t believe there is a right or wrong age to start your child in a sport activity, but I feel most aren’t ready until they begin elementary school. In the end, you as the parent need to make the right decision you believe is right for your child and most importantly, it should be about learning skills and HAVING FUN. Perhaps the most important factor that concerns me in today’s society is that youth sports have become so structured and organized, that the concept of play has disappeared. Make sure your child has the opportunity to play with their friends. Obviously, safety is an issue, but encourage your child to play with their friends without a parent coaching or barking instructions. Give them the opportunity to create on their own with their peers, and they will probably stay involved in that sport much longer than getting burned out by 10, 11 or 12 from going to organized practices and games since age four or five.