Are We Starting Organized Sports Too Early?

I would love, love, love for my children to have a group of friends to roam through our woods and neighborhood with. I have many fond childhood memories of riding my bike, playing kickball in someone’s backyard and being allowed out at night to play capture the flag until it got dark. Today’s children aren’t playing in an unstructured way outside anymore. The theory is that instead, kids are inside engrossed in electronics. Instead of outside freelancing with neighbors, kids are playing organized sports, earlier and earlier.

Children miss important life lessons if adults constantly organize their play. They won’t learn how to communicate with other kids when there’s a dispute. They won’t learn how to split up the teams fairly. They won’t learn how to deal with a difficult child or to stop being that difficult child on the team.

Sadly, there’s a whole generation of children growing up this way. I also recognize that there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario with organized sports. Are we starting kids in sports earlier and earlier because we recognize that children don’t play outside anymore? Or, is starting kids in sports earlier than previous generations contributing to kids not playing outside anymore? Regardless of which came first, we have to parent in today’s society. Organized sports at a young age are the norm. We want our children to participate in the norm ― meaning team sports ― and find these things important to childhood, especially if you, as the parent, played them yourself growing up.

When do we start our children in organized sports?

We have to be careful not to start them too young because of burnout and because we don’t really know at age four which sport little Sarah will have a propensity for. We have to be careful not to start them too late because, if you do, you’ve denied Sarah the opportunity to play for a few seasons before things really start getting competitive.

As my children get older, I also grapple with which sports to introduce to them. Not only are children playing organized sports earlier, they are specializing in one sport earlier.

When we were growing up, we could play pick-up basketball at the park. We didn’t have to register for team sports upon being able to walk, because there were early unstructured outlets to develop and test those skills. Only in middle school did you have to select which organized sports to pursue. By that time, many of us had clocked countless hours of sports time with our neighborhood friends. We had developed the necessary social skills needed to play on a team. We knew the rules. We’d learned how to win graciously and lose without our parents having to teach us. We got to make an informed decision as to which activities suited us, whether sports or otherwise, because we have tried a variety of things on our own by nine or ten.

By contrast, today even for children aged six, the time commitment for any one team is overwhelming. For example, I’m considering the swim team for my six-year-old son. The swim team practices five days a week plus meets, all through the school year. If you ask for a lesser time commitment from the coach, you run the risk that they suggest that your child may not be mature enough for the team.

Swimming may be an extreme example because of the wide range of ages that it serves, but under-8 soccer practices two nights per week with Saturday games. That’s just one activity for one child in one sports season. What if you have more than one child? What if you want your child to learn an instrument or dance or attend a religious class or do their homework too? What if both spouses work and/or travel for work? How do you commit to that schedule at such a young age?

I had a mother tell me recently that she had to get her kindergarten-aged son weekly private skating lessons this past year so that he could “catch up” on his hockey team. “Catch up?” I’d repeated. I was floored that a six-year-old was “behind” in a hockey league. “Oh yeah,” she replied. “There are kids on his team that have been skating since they were three or four. Because we started so late (at age five), we have to do a weekly skating lesson [in addition to the hockey team commitments which averaged two nights a week].” At four and six, I guess my non-ice-skating kids have missed the window of time in which to play hockey. Poof. Bye-bye. Who knew?

I had a similar experience with baseball this spring for my six-year-old son. It was his first season in the five and six-year-old league. His team (and most teams) were primarily made up of boys on their third baseball season. THIRD!? Were these children placed into tee-ball leagues at birth? Why do three-year-olds need to be playing organized team tee-ball? Can’t they just whack the ball off the tee in the backyard (or even in the house if necessary)?

I know that my son likes the water. I started him at mommy-and-me swim lessons at six-months-old and continued some form ever since. I wanted him to have that life skill. Not to be an Olympian, but because I had great memories of going to the pool with my friends growing up. Beyond swimming, I hardly know which activities my son is naturally drawn to. I don’t know that my son is a good kicker because he plays kickball in the cul-de-sac with his friends. I don’t know that he has a good swing because he tells that me that he gets picked first for whiffle ball in Sarah’s backyard.

Then, I fear that if I select the wrong sport, my kid is so pigeon holed. By the time he’s old enough to really know what he wants to do, like nine or ten, kids have been playing a sport for six years by then. Is it too late to change at that point?

I have these thoughts, as I sit on these hard, concrete steps at our high school pool, for summer swim club, which has a less stringent time commitment than the full-year team. My six-year-old is in the water and on the pool deck, getting exercise, interacting with children, most of them older them him. He’s the smallest swimmer by far, and one of the fastest.

I’m relieved and emotional that he’s found a thing that he’s good at. I am proud. I am thankful. We’ve had our struggles through toddlerhood and I’m comforted that swimming might be part of our salvation. Last summer, this was a sophisticated problem. One I didn’t have on my radar because we were busy with behavioral evaluations, social skills groups and speech therapy. I fear that encouraging him into a rigid swimming training at age six is a bit young, of course. To the exclusion of other activities.

I’ll leave our decisions about the fall sports season for my soon-to-be first grader undecided today. But, I do know this. One of the unexpected benefits about him swimming this summer has been the experience for my four-year-old girl. She’s the one who gets the unstructured play. There are many younger sisters sitting on these same hard pool steps. And, she’s made friends with every one that likes to play ponies.

Modern Parenting