By Guest Blogger Matthew Ravish, DO, Assistant Professor of Orthopaedics at Brenner Children’s Hospital, Wake Forest Baptist Health
Participation in organized sports is a common part of childhood for many children. So, naturally, parents want to make the best decisions about when and how to introduce their child to the sport of his or choice. As a parent, you know your child best and are equipped to make appropriate decisions about his or her involvement in activities. However, when it comes to competitive and team sports, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind.
1. When can I introduce my child to organized sports? There is no perfect age for a child to start playing organized sports. You should make this decision based on whether or not your child is developmentally ready and mature enough to participate. Most experts agree that a child below age 6 will not have the physical development skills or attention span to listen to coaching or follow the rules of a game. This does not mean that preschoolers and toddlers should not play sports; it only means that organized sports at that age should be focused on fun rather than competition.
There are benefits to introducing a young child to organized sports—including the advantages that come with coaching, supervision, safety and proper equipment. However, organized sports at an early age cannot replace the benefits of unstructured, unorganized, spontaneous free play, which include development of motor skills, social interaction, creativity and simple enjoyment of play
2. At what age is it appropriate for my child to specialize in a sport? The exact age can be variable, depending upon your child’s development skills. However, the evidence we have on this subject suggests there are benefits in delaying specialization for the majority of sports until after puberty—or even until late adolescence. Many studies have shown that allowing children to participate in multiple sports throughout early and late childhood will increase the odds of athletic success in a single sport later on. That is because there are tremendous developmental skills children will gain from playing multiple sports versus only a single sport. If you look at NCAA Division 1 athletes and professional athletes, most of these athletes played multiple sports growing up. With that said, there are a couple of sports, such as gymnastics and figure skating, that do require early specialization.
Note that the American Academy of Pediatrics, through the Council of Sports Medicine and Fitness, is updating their recommendations on sports specialization and will be updating their policy statement later this year.
3. What are the sports recommendations for my child’s age group? The general recommendations are to focus on early diversification (sampling of sports) and delaying any specialization until after puberty. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that organized sports programs for preadolescents complement, not replace, the regular physical activity that is part of free play, child-organized games and recreational sports.
If, as a parent, you feel that your child under age 6 is ready to participate in organized sports, make sure the league he or she is in is first focused on allowing the children to have fun and play at their development level. For children ages 6 to 10, the focus should be on developing fundamental movement skills and the ABCS of athleticism: agility, balance, coordination and speed. Even in this age group, the focus should still be on having fun, discovering and learning—not solely on competition. For adolescent athletes over the age of 10, the focus can gradually move toward competition-related training.
For more information about youth and sports or to make an appointment with Dr. Ravish, please visit www.wakehealth.edu or call 336-716-WAKE.
*Sponsored by Brenner Children’s Hospital, Wake Forest Baptist Health