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Organized Sports: How Young Is Too Young?

My dad had two rules in my house when it came to sports. The first rule: You start it, you finish it. The second rule was geared toward putting the responsibility on my brothers and me to decide which sports we wanted to play. He never asked, suggested or reminded us about the sign-up period for any sport. His thinking was: If we wanted to play it bad enough, we’d find out and tell him.

Nowadays, it seems, more parents are making these decisions for their kids, and doing so with their children at an increasingly younger age. Whether it’s a way to get them to put down the tablets and venture outside of the house, a desire to give their child every opportunity to earn that coveted sports scholarship many of us dream about, or simply a matter of keeping up with the proverbial “Joneses”, the race to get children into organized sports is off and running.

But is that necessarily a good thing?

I played my first organized sport when I was seven years old. It was the t-ball division of my local little league. We had practice twice a week after school and played two games each week—one on a week night and another on Saturday. To the best of my recollection, the practices were orderly and the games were competitive.

Compare that to today, with baseball and soccer leagues starting for kids as young as 3 years old, or swimming, dance and gymnastics programs that start even earlier. Some keep score, many do not, but most of them have one thing in common: The parent making the decision for the child.  And the outcomes aren’t always what we as parents have in mind.

“My wife and I put our son Ryan in a wee-ball league (a pre-t-ball league) when he was three,” said Bob Oppitz of Parkville, the father of two boys. “We wanted to introduce him to the sport and get him to meet other kids.”

But for Oppitz, who grew up playing many organized sports himself, the experience was a bit of a downer.

“With younger kids, their minds are all over the place,” he said. “It’s hard to keep their attention.”

Even with his sister as the coach, and he himself pitching in, Oppitz said his boy was simply not having it, wandering from his position to pick up pine cones, refusing to put on the batting helmet, and so on.

“At that age, my son had no intention of doing what the coach wanted,” he said.  “It was frustrating.”

As a result, Oppitz decided not to sign his son up for any organized teams the next year, instead choosing to find other ways to get him interested in sports. They played catch in the back yard and watched baseball and hockey games on TV. This year, with no prodding from his dad, his son asked him if he could play baseball, which Oppitz happily agreed to.

We had a similar case in my house when I signed up my girls for an organized soccer league when they each turned three. I also thought it would be a great way to lay the foundation for them to become lifelong sports fans. I had dreams of them sitting next to me watching the Super Bowl or other major sporting events, as I had done with my dad.

I was wrong.

It was a major effort getting them to put their uniform on for games, let alone give up their Saturday mornings. Half the time they didn’t want to go. And it seemed unfair to invoke the “You start it you finish it” rule I inherited from my dad when it wasn’t their choice to play in the first place. Nevertheless, they survived the season. They haven’t been back since, though.

I chalked that up to a lesson learned the hard way and went back to letting them tell me when they want to play. All of which made it such a pleasant surprise when my now-9-year-old came home and asked me if she could sign up for the school basketball team this past winter.

I hear stories like these all the time, but apparently they are doing little to slow the influx of toddlers playing organized sports. Some leagues can’t keep up with the demand, in fact.

“We have more teams than coaches,” said Linda Ruff, who helps run the popular South Baltimore Little League, when I asked how her introductory t-ball league (ages 4 and 5 with no prior experience) was looking this year.

In her league’s case, the teams do 20 minutes of skill development, such as catching, throwing, hitting off the tee, and then they play a “game” against another team.  Ruff conceded that parental expectations should be low in those age groups.

“You have to be strong and hang in there during the first half of the season because their attention span is so short,” she said.  “You really have to keep them interested. I really think four is too young, personally.”

Soccer Shots starts even earlier, with programs geared towards children ages 2–8. And their business is booming. What’s interesting about that program is they don’t even introduce competition, at any age. The most they do is scrimmage, but even then, when someone scores a goal, both sides congratulate the goal scorer.

“We recognize the important role we play as a young child’s first coach,” said Camilo Beltran, the Executive Director of Soccer Shots for the Mid-Atlantic region. “Our focus is on skill and character development.”

If you are determined to get your child into organized sports at a young age, rather than wait until they are old enough to decide for themselves, that’s what experts say the focus should be on—that and just plain old running around.

“At that age, sports should really be about just being active,” said Dr. Catherine Parrish, a longtime Pediatrician for Johns Hopkins and mother of four whose children all played sports growing up. She said organized sports are merely another way to ensure children get the exercise they need. She equated them to dancing, riding a bicycle or countless other outdoor activities that get kids moving. The important thing is that they enjoy what it is that they are doing, she says.  And you have a better chance of that when you let kids have a say in the process.

Wish I had thought of that earlier.



About Patrick Gutierrez

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