Is Your Child Ready for Sports? (Care of the Young Athlete)

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Sports readiness means that a child has the
physical, mental, and social skills to meet the demands of the sport. While
general guidelines can help you select a sport based on age, it’s
important to remember that children develop at different rates. Children are
more likely to enjoy and succeed in sports when they have the physical, mental,
and social skills required by the sport.

Ages 2 to 5 years

Before age 6 years, most children do not have
the basic motor skills for organized sports. Balance and attention span are
limited, and vision and ability to track moving objects are not fully mature.
Instead, look for other sports activities that focus on basic skills such as
running, swimming, tumbling, throwing, and catching. These skills can be
improved through active play but do not require organized sports activities.
Children at this age have a short attention span and learn best when they can
explore, experiment, and copy others. Instruction should be limited, follow a
show-and-tell format, and include playtime. Competition should be avoided.
Parents can be good role models and should be encouraged to participate.

Ages 6 to 9 years

By age 6 years, most children have the basic
motor skills for simple organized sports. However, they may still lack the
hand-eye coordination needed to perform complex motor skills and may not yet be
ready to understand and remember concepts like teamwork and strategies. Sports
that can be adapted to be played at a basic level and focus on basic motor
skills are the most appropriate. This includes running, swimming, soccer,
baseball, tennis, gymnastics, martial arts, and skiing. Sports that require
complex visual and motor skills, quick decision-making, or detailed strategies
or teamwork (football, basketball, hockey, volleyball) will be difficult unless
modified for younger players. Rules should be flexible to promote success,
action, and participation. The sport should focus on learning new skills rather
than winning. The equipment and rules should also be appropriate for young
children. For example, smaller balls, smaller fields, shorter game times and
practices, fewer children playing at the same time, frequent changing of
positions, and less focus on score keeping.

Ages 10 to 12 years

By ages 10 to 12 years, most children are ready
for more complex sports. They have the motor skills and cognitive ability to
play sports that require complex motor skills, teamwork, and strategies. Most
experts believe that sports at this level should focus on skill development,
fun, and participation, not competition. Most children would rather play more on
a losing team than less on a winning team.

Some children in this age group may be starting
puberty. During this time, the physical differences between children,
particularly boys of the same age, can be dramatic. This can make a difference
in what sport is best for your child. Boys who start puberty sooner will be
temporarily taller, heavier, and stronger. This may give them a physical
advantage, but it doesn’t mean they are more talented and will continue
to excel in sports. If possible, they should compete with boys with the same
physical ability. Similarly, boys who mature later may experience a temporary
physical disadvantage in sports. This should not be seen as a lack of talent or
ability. These boys should be encouraged to play sports with less emphasis on
physical size, such as racquet sports, swimming, martial arts, wrestling, and
certain track events.

Also, growth spurts can temporarily affect
coordination, balance, and the ability to perform a skill. Keep in mind that it
can be frustrating if this is seen as a lack of talent or effort.

Other guidelines

  • Get fit and learn a new
    skill.
    Encourage your children to participate in activities
    that promote physical fitness as well as learning sports skills. The
    activities should be fun and right for their ages.

  • Focus on fun. Choose sports
    programs that focus on personal involvement, variety, success, and fun
    rather than competition, strict rules, and winning. It may help them
    stay interested and want to keep playing.

  • Check out the rules.
    Equipment and rules should be right for their ages. If not, they should
    be modified.

  • Make sure safety is a
    priority.
    Appropriate setting, equipment, protective gear,
    program design, and rules of play are important.

  • Keep differences in mind.
    Prior to puberty, there are very few differences between boys and girls
    in endurance, strength, height, or body mass, and they can compete
    together on an equal basis. During puberty, to make sure athletes are
    well matched in contact sports, consideration should be given to body
    size and physical maturity as well as chronological age.

  • Proceed with caution. Early
    specialization in a single sport, intensive training, and year-round
    training should be undertaken with caution because of the risk of
    overuse injury, mental stress, and burnout. Playing only one sport may
    also prevent a child from developing a variety of motor skills that they
    would learn from participating in several different sports.

  • Wait until your children are
    ready.
    Children should not play competitive win/lose sports
    until they understand that their self-worth is not based on the outcome
    of the game.

  • Find a good sports program.
    Get feedback from other children and parents who are in the programs.
    Try to check out programs before you join them. A sign of a good program
    is children having fun.