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See Jane run. See Dick throw.

Why are children starting to play competitive sports at younger ages and specializing by the time they reach middle school?

Just a generation ago, kids came home from school, ate a snack and headed to the neighbor’s or the park for a game of pick-up. There were no parents, coaches or officials keeping score, making rules or organizing playoff brackets.  Of course, these kids all knew the score, but they played because it was fun not for a trophy or scholarship. 

Our kids, on the other hand, start training and lessons in organized sports in preschool.  By the time they’re eight, they can find themselves on a “travel” team wearing a personalized jersey and going for the gold.  

With the prominence of competitive sports in our children’s lives, it seems more kids are starting to compete at younger ages.  Furthermore, the era of the three-sport athlete is gone. Young athletes who once might have gone from soccer to basketball to tennis are now competing in only two or worse simply one sport before they enter high school.   What does this mean for our kid, our families, our communities?    

Join us as we explore the answers to some of the following questions:

  • At what age is a child old enough to handle the pressure of a competitive team?
  • How does your family decide in which sports your child will participate and how often?
  • What factors play a role in a parent or child’s decision to focus on one sport?
  • Do organized sports dominate your family’s time?   If so, how do you feel about this? 
  • Is it okay to force your child to play a sport for the benefit of the exercise or team camaraderie?  
  • How can we help our children learn to win and lose and learn from both experiences?
Nelson Salazar March 09, 2011 at 11:34 PM
I have four children 10, 8, 5 & 5. I to have struggled with what to enroll them in, when and how often. Many children, including my own, don't like to participate in a sport where everyone on the team is clearly better then they are. We've tried soccer, basketball, baseball, swimming, lacrosse & Tae Kwan Do. It seems that with every sport we try already the majority of their teammates have several years under their belt and my kids are still young. As discussed, some with private coaches, special camps; etc. I see many children dropping sports because they fall behind their peers in skill or abilities. With swimming, as an example, you're not likely to be included in any competitive meets if you aren't a year round swimmer, that costs thousands of dollars excluding private lessons. Additionally, many of the sports have rigorous schedules that dominate most of their free time. With the recent movie, "Race to Nowhere", highlighting how our children are over scheduled and over stressed I for one won't be pushing for multiple concurrent sports and I will probably forbid it. I feel children don't have enough time to just be kids, unscheduled down time. The prevalence of private lessons, personal coaches, training centers; etc. is unfortunate. However, if your child really enjoys a sport it becomes difficult to remain competitive when most of their peers are receiving that benefit. We to prefer sports/activities where the family can all participate together.
Ayo Hart March 10, 2011 at 01:18 AM
Alyson, well put. I never even thought about the fear factor! We live on a cul-de-sac, and I've often wondered where the children were. Maybe a dozen times each year I'll see the kids riding by on their bikes or skating around the circle, but not to the extent I had hoped and expected when we chose this neighborhood. As an AAU coach, I understand the abundance of off-season opportunities and sometimes wonder if our programs are part of the problem. The most glaring point you mentioned was that sports are no longer season to season but rather year round. I suppose that is the first crack at the source of the problem. Perhaps children focus on one sport because they can. When we were younger, there weren't a million club teams, off-season training and team camps to attend.
Ayo Hart March 10, 2011 at 01:43 AM
Tony, that is a difficult situation to be in with your middle daughter. I know when my girls decided they didn't actually enjoy lacrosse last year, I didn't push it and just signed them up for a different sport the next spring. I know mine are only five so it's a big difference, but I wonder if your daughter might be allowed to switch (I like switch more than quit :) soccer for something else? Perhaps she could try field hockey, tennis or volleyball in the fall instead? She's not 5, but she's so young I'm sure it's not too late to pick up a hockey stick or raquet or have a go at volleyball. Who knows, maybe she would grow to love another sport and would quickly surpass even her soccer prowess. I just worry about the undue stress you put on her and subsequently the family by forcing her to play. I understand and agree with your desire to have her continue sports, but maybe as Lisa said we could listen to our children and let them be more a part of the decision. It sounds like your daughter is far from inactive so maybe even one season off is not a bad idea. uh oh too long......
Ayo Hart March 10, 2011 at 01:44 AM
Just my two cents :) and I'm VERY glad to have dads on board! Nick, I think you raise a valid point. I have often wondered if ours is a unique phenomenon or whether it's a trend srpeading across the country. I will say that I have coached everywhere from a middle income Upper Valley, VT area to lower income neighborhoods in Roxbury, MA. I watched while families sold candy bars and offered car washes not so that the kids could travel to Nationals at Disney World but just simply to buy uniforms and cover the basic expenses. So I wonder if everyone is getting caught up in the frenzy irrespective of income level. Keep the comments coming everyone. This is a great discussion this week.
Tony Violante March 10, 2011 at 03:22 AM
This is a very interesting and relevant topic for many of us. A lot of good points have been made. Coach - I agree with you and am also concerned that I may be creating stress for my daughter. I have considered lessening her schedule, but have not thought about switching, just to keep things interesting for her. Might be something to consider. At present, soccer seems to be her least favorite sport. But I can remember, just 3 months ago she didn't want to play basketball. Now she would play 7 days a week if she could. You definitely need to obtain input from children, but the ultimate decision must lie with the parents. One rule I have is; Once you agree to sign up, you have a responsibility and a commitment and you need to play out the season. Next season is another issue.

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