The benefits of sports abound in a child’s development: motor skills, teamwork, physical activity and even improved vision.
We asked experts at the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) as well as an award-winning college coach/recruiter to answer some of the best questions parents have about kids and sports. NAYS provides training and guidance to youth sports programs across the U.S.
What’s the best age to start a sport?
This answer varies depending on the sport, and what you hope your child will gain. Most experts suggest anything before age 6 should focus on physical activity and fun, with no scorekeeping. By age 7 and 8, kids have the skills necessary to try team sports, while competitive sports are best reserved for ages 9 and older.
Is it ever “too late” for kids to play a new sport?
No, according to Hannah Dave, head field hockey coach for the Wolves at Newberry College in South Carolina. Dave, who was named 2019 Field Hockey Coach of the Year by Synapse Sports, started playing field hockey her freshman year of high school.
“I went to college with kids who’d been playing since 6 years old, and I started in high school,” Dave says. “Starting early is going to be the best for someone who really wants to go to the next level, but I would say no, it’s never too late. There will always be different levels of participation available.”
For the late bloomer, you might consider a personal coach. John Engh, executive director of NAYS, says the use of private training is one of the biggest changes he’s seen in the last decade. It was discouraged prior to that, but as kids have become involved in sports at increasingly earlier ages, private training can provide an older child new to the sport a chance to get up to speed. “The only caveat is to know who that person is because there’s absolutely no one overseeing their work,” Engh warns.
Any guidance in choosing a sport?
Consider a child’s personality when deciding on the right fit. You’ll want to ensure your child can be successful and confident. Some kids may welcome an aggressive outlet, which sports can provide, while others may not want the pressure of being part of a team, Engh says.
In his experience with parents over nearly 30 years, parents typically want their kids to gain socialization or learn about winning and losing. “Generally, the last thing parents say is they want them to be a great baseball player,” he says.
Once you choose the sport, review your options. “If you want your child to learn and have fun,” Engh says, “make sure the team you’re joining is about learning and fun and not creating an all-star team.”
For a greater challenge, travel teams and club leagues offer an elite level of competitive play. These teams require a commitment to travel, time and expenses beyond those found in school or park and rec programs. Some families find themselves working around other family members and duties to honor the team’s expectations. Parents must review whether that commitment works for their family and if the benefits outweigh the considerable investment. Additionally, Engh cautions parents to consider whether the added expenses and commitments guarantee their child any more playing time.
Make sure you look at the “fine print” in any program, no matter how innocent it may seem, Engh says. Each program should have printed and available guidelines for parents, including expenses you can anticipate. Consider “hidden” costs beyond program fees, such as uniforms/costumes, shoes, competition travel (gas, meals, hotels), recital tickets, etc.
Are there guidelines for how much a child should practice and play?
NAYS makes the following recommendations:
- Ages 6 and younger: Limit practice and games to a maximum of one hour per day, twice weekly.
- Ages 7 to 10: Limit time to one hour per day, three times weekly.
- Ages 11 and older: Limited to 1.5 hours per day, three times weekly.
Learn more at nays.org.
Should we specialize in a single sport?
Most medical advice encourages parents to delay sports specialization for as long as possible. The risk of overuse injuries, not to mention burnout and performance pressure, outweighs any advantages a young person might have in focusing all their effort on one sport. In fact, versatile, multi-sport athletes tend to be viewed advantageously by recruiters.
Why do kids quit sports?
NAYS has studied this since the 1980s. The top reason kids quit a sport is because it’s just not fun anymore. What makes a sport no longer fun? Time and parent pressures, Engh says, as well as a greater self-awareness. The kid who thought baseball was fun may see top kids on the team excelling and become aware that they are not as good a player.>
What’s a parent to do? You can try taking a break or playing at a less competitive level, but ultimately, Engh says, “there comes a time when you just have to let it go.”
We have a star athlete. What’s the likelihood of an athletic scholarship?
The odds are slim—about 2 in 100 athletes—and most aren’t a free ride. Check out ScholarshipStats.com for current information on playing college sports and athletic scholarships based on individual sports, from baseball to water polo.
Engh advises parents to wait until high school before deciding their child is surely destined for the pros. It’s premature to base a child’s talent on play before then (although he admits that recruiters for certain sports consider those early successes). “Keep a clear head and evaluate where they’re at in high school when age gaps tend to level out,” he says.
Should we invest in an agent?
That depends on the sport, head coach Dave says. It’s alright if you don’t want to join a club league, yet it may require you to be a bit more proactive in reaching out to colleges. Finding someone who knows the college recruiting process can be helpful.
Engh agrees. “If your child is older than 15 and they’re getting letters from colleges,” he says, “an agent is probably not a bad idea.”
What’s always a big advantage in a recruiter’s eyes? Supportive families, Dave says. “I do think it makes or breaks how you coach, how you play,” she says. “I always want my players to play for themselves first, but I also tell them they need to play for those who are supporting them.”