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When Should Children Start Playing Organized Sports?

May 3, 2004 03:34 PM

By Jim Brown, Executive Editor, Sports Performance Journal (www.athletesperformance.com)

It is never too early to begin teaching fundamental movement skills to children. It’s fun, challenging, and productive for kids of any age — even toddlers — to learn how to run, jump, kick, throw, hit a ball, and do all the other things that might eventually help him or her become a good athlete.

But the question of when to enroll that child in an organized program of tennis lessons or competition is not so easy to answer. In fact, there is no "right" time for every child to get involved in organized sports. Individuals are ready at different ages. Consider your child's physical, emotional, and mental readiness before signing up for instruction or play in any sport. Just because a child is ahead of his or her peers in terms of coordination, speed, or strength does not necessarily imply readiness to participate in individual or team sports. Let’s face it: four, five and six-year-olds are not exactly team oriented. If you don’t believe that, all you have to do is watch the “beehive soccer” mentality of very young children. Forget spacing, defending, passing, and the other attributes needed to succeed at soccer. It’s all about “me” — kind of like NBA basketball.

Questions to Ask
Rather than selecting an arbitrary time or age for your child to begin playing organized sports (often based on the mere availability of a program or pressure from friends and family), it might be better to ask yourself these questions about your child:

  • Will he/she be willing to attend regular practices?
  • Is he/she mature enough to understand and play by the rules?
  • Is he/she ready to conform to team or group goals rather than individual wishes?
  • Is he/she willing to accept coaching and discipline from someone other than you?
  • Can he/she keep up with schoolwork and participate in organized sports?

All of these questions should be discussed, or at least considered, before commitments are made. It is easy for the child to say "yes" about an activity that is new, exciting, and popular with friends. It is another matter for a child to follow through on those commitments when he or she is tired, irritable, not getting to play, doesn't like the coach or teaching pro, or continually loses. Include everyone in the process of making decisions, but reserve the right to make the final decision yourself. That's why they call you the parent.

The 8-10 Option
Most experts don't recommend organized sports before the ages of 8-10. In sports like football, volleyball, golf, track and field, and wrestling, waiting another year or two is not likely to hurt an athlete's chances of success in high school or college. Also, those sports either carry a higher risk of injury or are simply too complex for children who are younger. Many football coaches think 13 is not too late. Peewee soccer or T-ball at ages six to eight is fun and safe, depending on how the participation is handled by the parents and coaches.
One of the consequences of early participation is early burnout. Given the fact that 70 percent of children drop out of organized sports by the time they are 13, there is an argument to be made that every youth athlete has a career life expectancy of six to eight years. Start a child in highly competitive and physically demanding tennis program at six and the career is over at 12, perhaps 14. Start him or her at ten and they may play all of the way through high school and perhaps beyond.

John Callen, Executive Director of the USTA Southern Section, describes the dilemma facing organized tennis programs. “If we don’t offer structured programs at any early age, the kids will go to another sport that does give them an outlet. It’s a Catch-22 situation. Start them too early and risk burnout. Try to hold them off until later and risk losing them to another sport — forever.”

Whatever you decide, allow for the late-bloomer. The youth sports system in this country (tournament tennis, elite/select/travel teams in other sports) does not favor the athlete whose skills begin to surface in the early teens. Michael Jordan (cut from the varsity as a sophomore), Larry Nelson (didn’t start playing golf until he was in his 20s), Michael Strahan (played his first football game as a senior in high school), and Marat Safin (began playing tennis at 12) are just a few of the examples of great athletes who developed at relatively older ages.

Three Take-Home Messages

  1. First exposure to sports does not have to be in the form or organized activity. There is something to be said for hitting a tennis ball apart from formal instruction, playing catch in the back yard, or playing pick up games in the neighborhood where children have to make their own rules, develop their own skills, devise their own strategies, and resolve their own disputes.
  2. If you say "no" to a plea to be on a team or to sign up for tennis lessons, offer an alternative activity. If not, you could end up with a child who retreats retreat into the solitude of watching television, playing video games, or getting lost on the internet. Try this: "You can start taking tennis lessons next year, but we promise to hit with you at the tennis courts at least twice a week this year."
  3. Finally, earlier is not necessarily better than later in regard to most organized sports participation. There is no correlation between success in peewee sports and success as a teenage or adult athlete. As one veteran baseball scout replied when he was asked if Little League is too late to get a player started, "Little League might be too early."

© 2004 HMS Publishing, Inc.
Jim Brown will be contributing new content to this site on a monthly basis. If you have a question for Dr. Brown please feel free to email him at
sportsmed@mindspring.com.

 

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