When Should Kids Start Competitive Sports?

Father and son at soccer field with ball
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If your child shows an interest or talent in youth sports, the question will crop up quickly: Is it time for a competitive sports team (or for solo competition)? The answer varies depending on the child; some are more suited to the higher pressure that competition brings. Consider these factors as you make your decision.

Is your child old enough for competitive sports?

Experts in both youth sports and child development agree: Kids are not ready for competition until they are at least 8 years old.

Before that, they just can't handle the stresses of winning, losing, and being measured and scored on their performance. For children under 8, sports should be about physical activity, having fun, learning new skills, and laying the groundwork for good sportsmanship.

That doesn't mean that all kids will be ready for competitive sports as soon as they turn 8. For many children, it's not until about age 10 that they can grasp some of the nuances inherent in competition. It's hard to learn that sometimes, you lose even when you try your best.

Developmentally, kids playing competitively need to have sufficient self-discipline and a good attention span. They need to be mature enough to listen to and respect the coach, as well as the standards of group instruction. If your child is super-passionate about soccer, but doesn't have the patience to perform practice drills over and over, she may not be ready to join a competitive team.

To decrease the risk of injury, kids should not play contact sports such as football until they are at least in middle school (age 11 or 12). There is also a risk of overuse injury if your child specializes in a certain sport or playing position at a young age.

Is your child skilled enough for competitive sports, or will he learn from them?

Passion doesn't always equal proficiency.

Your child may adore basketball, but end up riding the bench if he joins a team that's too advanced for him. Competitive sports teams naturally place more emphasis on winning, which means less talented athletes don't always get much playing time.

Jim Thompson is the executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), which advocates for character education via sports. He urges parents to seek out coaches and leagues that emphasize mastery over winning at any cost. Think of mastery as an ELM tree, Thompson says. Players can control their own Effort, Learning, and responses to Mistakes. But they can't control whether they win or lose.

"At eight, nine, ten years old, kids want to know: 'How am I doing compared to other people? Am I getting better?'" he explains. "The best way to be competitive is to focus on mastery. The best way to win is to beat an inferior team. But what does that do for you?" Thompson asks.

Does your child really want to play competitive sports?

Before you put down that deposit, be certain that your child's heart is in this for real.

Does she want to join a team just because her friends are on it? Or because her parents have been (maybe subconsciously) pushing her into it? If she really wants to push herself to the next level, great! But if she doesn't, she still has the option to enjoy her favorite sport on a noncompetitive or rec league, or through pick-up games with family and friends.

Also consider whether team or individual competition is right for your child. This will largely depend on your child's personality. Some kids thrive on team camaraderie; others want more control over their own destiny. Some kids find being part of a team takes pressure off. Others feel more anxious, worried that they'll let teammates down.

Does your child want to compete for the right reasons?

There's an important distinction between between "competing to win" and "competing to excel." Competing to win means trying to "dominate and outperform" others, while competing to excel is about "performing well and surpassing personal goals." Athletes whose primary motivation is to compete to excel can see big benefits, according to a research study of 110 high school athletes. These benefits include higher self-esteem and less depression.

Athletes who compete to excel are still driven to succeed. But their motivation comes from within: "I want to be the best I can be" instead of "I want to smoke all those other competitors." Competing to excel does take the emphasis off winning and losing. The focus shifts to using competition as a means of motivating individual achievement. Competing to excel has also been called "personal development competitiveness," "task-oriented competition," or simply the "need to perform well."

You can encourage personal development and confidence in competitiveness by focusing on incremental improvements and skill-building. Praise your child when she achieves a personal best, even if she doesn't win a race. Notice and comment when he makes an important contribution to his team, even if the team doesn't end up with a win that day. Be sure to remind him how proud you are of practice, persistence, and effort, not just outcomes like wins and trophies.

Is your family ready for competitive sports?

If your child joins a team, especially an elite or travel team, you'll be making a big commitment of both time and money. Aside from ferrying your child to practices and games, you'll almost certainly be required to contribute volunteer hours (and/or fundraising dollars) to the team, club or league.

And there's one more factor families should consider, says Darell Hammond, the CEO of play advocacy group KaBoom!. Will competitive sports cut into your child's unstructured play time too much, stifling her creativity? "Organized team sports impose rules on children," Hammond argued in a piece written for The Huffington Post. "But when children engage in playground and street games, they tend to build off a loosely established set of rules and invent their own as they go. This isn't just important for little kids—part of the appeal of skateboarding, for instance, is its spirit of invention, imagination, self-expression, and, yes, risk."

This doesn't mean you have to forego competitive sports altogether. But you might want to safeguard your kids' schedule so they get enough free time too.

Source:

Hibbard DR and Buhrmester D. Competitiveness, Gender, and Adjustment Among Adolescents. Sex Roles vol. 63, issue 5-6, September 2010.

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