Our son’s first word was “ball.” Now, at the ripe old age of three, he’s so fascinated with what he can do with a ball — shoot a basket, kick it across a field, hit it off a “T” — that we wondered if it might be time to find a sports league so he can start sharpening these new skills.
Instead of a ball team, we found a dilemma. On one hand, some parenting blogs warn that if your family doesn’t get in on the ground floor in organized sports, your child will miss the chance to compete at the highest levels. On the other hand, start too soon and your child runs the risk of sports injuries and burnout.
So what is the right answer? According to Dr. Andy Sagan, a pediatrician at Swedish Covenant Hospital, there’s no set guideline about the age a child should begin team sports, but there are several factors parents can consider.
“It really depends on your child’s physical ability, attention span and maturity level,” he said. “The younger ones have less of an attention span, so if you start your child in something too early that requires more focus than they can give, you may find more frustration than fun. In the early years especially, it should really be about fun and healthy activity.”
Sagan said parents of preschoolers should consider the benefits of free play too.
“Getting them out to a playground or kicking a ball around a park can help children get off of the couch and set them up for enjoying an active lifestyle,” he said. “Organized sports can be fun and safe, too, as long as the child is physically and emotionally ready to compete.”
When to begin
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more children in America are competing in sports than ever before. For parents who think their child is ready to take the plunge, Sagan has some recommendations for evaluating potential sports programs:
1. Meet the sports leaders and coaches and ensure they understand the needs of the children in the sport. Young children generally have short attention spans, so leaders of activities for small children should give them a chance to explore and investigate the sport without frustration on the child’s or adult’s part.
2. Go to a game or event and take note of the behavior of other children and parents. Evaluate the atmosphere to determine if it will be positive for your child.
3. Think about your own motivations for having your child begin team play. Recognize that their physical abilities and interests may change, and be willing to find other activities if your child’s interest in a particular sport wanes.
“Our best job as parents is to expose our children to a variety of activities that help them be active and explore the world around them,” Sagan said. “When evaluating a potential program, parents should exercise good judgment based on their child’s current needs, and not on future hopes for their athletic ability.”
Preventing sports injuries
Once you’ve decided your child is ready to play, it’s time to set the stage for a safe, optimal sports experience.
There are many ways to help prevent injuries depending on the child’s age, sport and physical ability, but Swedish Covenant Hospital orthopedist Dr. Gary Klaud Miller has an overall directive: Keep it fun.
“Playing sports is supposed to be fun, and if it’s not fun, then that increases your child’s chances for injury,” he said.
After your child has been sick or injured, Miller says it’s important to make sure they are fully restored to health before allowing them to jump back into the game.
“If they are not up to par, they can increase their chances of being more seriously injured,” he said. “Make sure they are not only well, but up to running and jumping as necessary in their sport.”
Miller also warns against pushing your children into particular sports if they are not interested.
“Body types and the changing abilities of both your child and their peers might affect their interest in the sport,” he said. “Children with different body types excel at various sports, and their ability level in a certain sport may change as their bodies grow and change.”
For more information on sports injuries, Miller recommends the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine’s sports injuries website, which lists prevention techniques for athletes in sports including baseball, basketball, football, gymnastics, soccer and wrestling. Information can also be found at the American Academy of Pediatrics parenting website.
Parents, when did your kids start playing organized sports? Do you have any tips to share?