Kids & Team Sports: What’s the Right Age?

Playing on a school sports team is great fun for kids. Being with friends, practicing and playing together, and sometimes’s all a natural part of later childhood. But how can we make sure it’s just plain fun and not a stressful competitive experience? And when is team sports the right choice?

The experienced coaches and authors of Beyond Winning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment argue that most parents get their kids started too early. They believe that it’s better to postpone team sports in favor of self-directed play early in childhood – in order to gain the physical and social skills necessary to really enjoy a game later on.

The Stages of Play

Authors Kim Payne, Luis Llosa, and Scott Lancaster describe four stages of play that create a good foundation for team sports.

Stage One: 5-8 year olds
Stage Two: 9-11 year olds
Stage Three: 12-15 year olds
Stage Four: 16-18 year olds

The focus of each stage is different, depending on the age of the child….and it’s rarely about winning. The authors argue that by starting your kids too young, you risk instilling a win-at-all-costs mentality or worse, skipping out on the positive lessons that children learn through sports. Instead, the authors break down what the focus of each stage ought to be:

Stage One: A Focus on Fun

Your 5 to 8 year old should be engaged in self-directed play that involves running, balancing, jumping off of things, thinking up imaginary games, and in general just playing freely with friends – or alone.

In self-directed play the child chooses the activity, the length of time he does it, and who does it with him. While it may look like just plain fun, children at this age naturally choose physical activities that increase their balance, stamina, and coordination – which will come into use later in team sports. But for the moment, it’s backyard and park play that are important.

Stage Two: A Bit of Competition

Your typical 9 to 11 year old enjoys tracking and measuring their capabilities. They naturally size themselves up in comparison to friends. Throwing, running, jumping, or practicing skills specific to team sports, like flag football, are all typical for kids at this age. They naturally organize themselves into games that are competitive, but competition is secondary to having fun.

Stage Three: Building out Skills

Stage Three kids, aged 12 to 15, have developed some good fundamental physical skills and are now ready to learn the more specific skills for team sports. They are still somewhat self-directed in their play and it often takes the form of self-measuring and casual competition in small groups.

Your child may have developed some terrific abilities at hockey, lacrosse, football, or volleyball, but it’s still not time to specialize and train for just one sport. Author Scott Lancaster says “Children should play a different sport each season at this stage, as it is still too early to introduce year-round specialization, which is detrimental to well-rounded athletic development.”

The encouragement and parental “tone” should still be on having fun – and lots of it.

Stage Four: Specialization

It’s only when children reach the 16 to 18 age range that they should be specializing in one sport. And even then, the authors recommend that they be exposed to a wide variety of athletic experiences throughout the year. Kids who play different sports during different seasons are injured less and stay more enthusiastic about sports in general.

Setting the Tone

Parents are encouraged to watch out for teachers, coaches, or other parents who put too much emphasis on winning at the early stages. Keep your encouragement and praise aimed at trying new activities and new ways to challenge skill development.

Always in the Picture

Self-directed play should always be a part of your child’s activities – even when they do begin to specialize in team sports. The Beyond Winning coaches say this, “Take one or two seasons off to discover and explore other activities that are challenging, but not necessarily team oriented.” Surfing, kayaking, fishing, or biking help restore enthusiasm for another season of team work.

What are your thoughts on team sports for kids? Never too early, or push off the rules until a later age? Let us know in the comments below!

Tags : education   active play   sports   

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