How to Choose a Kids' Sports Program

Find a sport, and a program, that's a good match for your kid.

Choose a kids' sports program - young gymnasts
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A kids' sports program can help your child stay active, meet new people, and learn new skills. It may even introduce him to a lifelong passion. Since the options can be overwhelming, consider these factors when you do your research and make your choices. 

To find out what's available in your area, check with parents of older children; ask at your child's school or your community center. Look for the national governing body for a particular sport (e.g., USA Hockey or USA Gymnastics).

Its website should have a locator to help you find kids' programs in your area.

Kids' Sports: What Does Your Child Like?

Is your child asking to play a particular sport? Is he the type of kid that likes to try new things and experiment? Or is he happier when he sticks with something familiar, so he can practice his skills and learn new ones? What are his friends doing (if that's important to him)? Remember that there are lots of sports that your kid might not know about yet. He might say he loves soccer just because that's the only sport he knows kids play, when in fact something else might be a better fit.

Kids' Sports: What Is Age-Appropriate? 

Some sports and activities are too challenging for little ones to handle. When considering a particular sport or program, remember:

  • Preschoolers have shorter attention spans and aren't ready for games or team sports with rules. Try individual activities like tumbling or swimming, and make sure each child gets lots of opportunity to play and move during classes. That means a low child-to-teacher (or coach) ratio so that kids don't sit on the sidelines too long, waiting for their turn.
  • Kids between 5 and 7 years old can begin to learn games with rules, but look for a program that strongly emphasizes sportsmanship and fun over winning. At this age, kids need to work on agility, strength, and hand-eye coordination. Non-contact sports such as skating, soccer, swimming, gymnastics, and T-ball are all good possibilities.
  • Eight- to 10-year-olds are ready to play competitive sports. They are old enough to develop strong skills, understand rules, and be part of a team.
  • Teens and tweens, with proper precautions, can play contact sports.

Sports leagues also need to develop kids' skills at an age-appropriate pace. USA Hockey, for example, sees ages 9 to 12 as the optimal window for specific ice hockey skill acquisition. During this time, coaches can teach some contact techniques in practice, but they are not allowed in games. US Youth Soccer and other organizations also base teachings on kids' abilities at various ages.

Also look at a program's philosophy. Is there an overemphasis on winning, instead of sportsmanship, teamwork, health, and fun? Ask about guidelines for playing time, for example. As beginners, kids should always get a chance to play in every game. Too much emphasis on elite performance can lead to injuries and anxiety.

Kids' Sports: Is the Program Safe?

There are some inherent risks in any sports activity.

So check out prevention measures the team or league has in place. First, staff, coaches, and volunteers should be properly trained. Do they know how to work with children? Have they had criminal background checks? Are they certified in first aid and other safety procedures?

Specifically, ask about the league's policy on concussions. What safety measures are in place to prevent injuries, and what is the protocol for responding to an injury? Any player suspected of having a concussion should be examined by a trained professional before returning to practice or play. Many national youth sports organizations offer concussion education to coaches. National organizations also provide leadership on other safety issues, such as equipment specifications and rules of play.

No one wants to think about it, but unfortunately, sexual abuse happens. Find out what the league does to protect its players from sexual predators. (One program that's trying to help: SafeSport.) In Little League Baseball, for example, local leagues must check sex offender registries and conduct background checks on "managers, coaches, board of directors members and any other persons, volunteers or hired workers, who provide regular service to the league and/or have repetitive access to, or contact with, players or teams." Each local league can conduct 125 background checks a year for free; costs are covered by the national organization.

Kids' Sports: Is the Program Doable for Your Family?

Participating in a youth sport takes time. Before you enroll your kid (or make her a promise), take a look at the practical aspects.  

Convenience/logistics: Can you manage the practice/game schedule? Can you carpool? Will your child be able to keep up with his other commitments, such as homework, family meals, music lessons, religious education, etc.? How long does the season last? There's a big difference between six weeks and six months!

Affordability: Remember that registration fees are usually just the beginning. You may also need to purchase equipment, cover travel costs, and participate in fundraising drives.

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