The pressure to enlist kids in competitive sports has us putting four-year-olds on the soccer field. It’s clear they don’t know what they’re doing. And it may be a more harmful decision than you realize.
Earlier this fall, my husband and I wrestled with the question of whether or not to sign our girls, ages five and seven, up for organized sports. On one hand, we want to expose them to the benefits of team play. On the other, we were reluctant to cram our schedule with twice-weekly practices and Saturday morning games when there are so many family adventures calling, like hiking and mountain biking, that we could all do together.
Not so long ago, youth team sports used to start in late elementary school or even middle school, but now it’s standard to see soccer teams for the under-five set and pre-school ice hockey leagues. By seven or eight, kids are already being funneled into highly competitive travel teams, many of which play all year. While it’s important to develop a lifelong habit of physical activity early in life, starting so young and specializing too soon has its risks. It makes kids more prone to burnout, injury, and inactivity later in life, according to the Changing The Game Project, an initiative designed to bring balance back to the hyper-competitive world of youth sports.
Still, with age four becoming the new norm for participating in team sports, I was afraid that if our daughter didn’t start early, she’d miss out and fall behind. It sounds neurotic, but I’m not alone. “You get sucked into thinking that if you don’t get your kid on a T-ball team when he’s five, he’s going to flunk out of school and end up living in a ditch,” says Toby Brooks, a father of two and an associate professor of athletic training at Texas Tech’s Health Science Center.