Is My Child Ready to Play Sports?

Select age-appropriate sports, keep it safe and fun

Young soccer players listen to their coach before playing.

Select age-appropriate sports, keep it safe and fun

Choosing when to introduce your child to sports can be a tricky decision for many parents.

Sports can offer numerous benefits, from improved motor skills to lessons on teamwork, to discipline and sportsmanship.

However, it’s crucial to ensure your child is ready for this new venture, physically, emotionally and socially.

Fortunately, there are many ways for parents to make sure they are ready.

Parents, of course, play a crucial role in shaping their children’s sports experiences and the payoff can be significant. By encouraging an active lifestyle from an early age, sports can help set the stage for a healthier adulthood.

When can children start playing sports?

Pediatricians recommend children start organized sports at age 6. This is generally when their attention span is better developed and they can understand concepts like teamwork.

Each child develops at a different rate, however. Parents should remember to honor the important stages of development in sports skills.

“Children build sports skills in a progressive sequence that we can’t dramatically speed up,” says Paul Stricker, MD, a pediatric sports medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley.

Remember, sports are most beneficial when the child finds enjoyment in playing them.

Signs your child is ready to play

Parents should observe their child’s motor skills, attention span and emotional readiness to determine whether they are ready to play sports.

“When we understand how a child’s sports skills develop, and then allow those skills to progress with patience and support, we provide the best opportunity to maximize performance and minimize pressure,” Dr. Stricker says.

For example, your child should be physically ready for the sport of their choice. If they’re interested in swimming, they should be comfortable in water and have basic swimming skills. If soccer or baseball is their preference, they should possess fundamental motor skills like running, kicking and throwing.

If your child is interested and enthusiastic about a sport, it means they are ready to play. On the other hand, if they consistently avoid or resist the activity, it means they are not enjoying it.

Are sports physicals helpful?

It’s a good idea to get a sports physical for your child before playing any sport. Some sports programs require it.

A sports physical checks for health issues that could affect your child in certain sports. It’s a way to make sure your child can take part in sports as safely as possible and derive all its health benefits.

Your child’s pediatrician can do the exam during a regular check-up, including at Scripps.

At Scripps, you can also get sports physicals at Scripps HealthExpress walk-in clinics in San Diego County.

Sports readiness by age

More than 30 million boys and girls participate in some form of organized sports in the United States. These range from after-school leagues to high school teams.

Selecting age-appropriate sports is a crucial step to ensure your child has a positive introduction to sports. Here is a sampling of physical sports skill milestones to keep in mind:

Early elementary (ages 6 to 9)

Many children are developmentally ready to play organized sports during these years. A basic toss may progress to a more accurate toss. Additionally, their interest with team sports increases.

You can introduce team sports, such as soccer and baseball. These sports help children understand the concepts of teamwork, winning, and losing.

Late elementary (age 10 to 12)

By this age, most children have the attention span, understanding, and skills needed for a wide range of sports. They might show interest in more complex team sports or continue with individual sports.

Many children become more focused on improving their skills in specific sports. Control of body motions becomes more automatic. Kids can refine skills like pivoting, turning and spinning.

Early adolescence (13 to 15)

In early adolescence, the physical, emotional, and psychological changes can be quite significant. The onset of puberty varies among children and may affect sport performance. Fast growth can make it harder to balance and control your body as your center of gravity shifts. 

Team sports continue to be beneficial, as they help young people develop a strong sense of identity and belonging.

Individual sports like track and field, tennis, or martial arts can provide an outlet for self-expression and personal achievement.

Late adolescence (16 to 18)

All sports are appropriate, but participants usually choose sports that they are good at and enjoy.

For many young people, sports can play a crucial role in managing stress related to academic and social pressures. Sports at this stage can also provide opportunities to demonstrate leadership skills and set the foundation for an active lifestyle in adulthood.

Health benefits of sports at any age

Regular physical activity through sports helps prevent childhood obesity and related health issues. Kids involved in sports are more likely to maintain a healthy weight and develop lifelong habits of physical fitness.

Enhancing the youth sports experience

Here are four ways parents can help shape their children's sports experiences:

1. Encourage a range of sports

Parents should encourage trying different sports. This helps prevent burnout and keeps the sports experience enjoyable. Specializing in one sport also increases the risk for overuse injury.

Playing multiple sports reduces the risk overtaxing certain muscles and joints and encourages a more balanced workout.

Pediatricians recommend waiting until after age 15 or 16 to allow your child to specialize in a sport.

2. Promote balance

Parents should help their children find a balance between sports, school and other activities. This can help reduce stress and keep sports in perspective.

3. Keep sports fun

Create a positive environment by focusing on effort, improvement, and the joy of playing, rather than on winning or losing. The emphasis for children playing sports should be on having fun.

“Sports activities at early ages have many potential benefits. But there are also risks of putting too much pressure on kids to succeed and win at a young age,” Dr. Sticker says.

Parents should find out what their child is interested in and make sure that the activity, team, and coach are a good fit. They should do this before choosing a team for their child.

“Check out the situation by observing the coach in action before deciding if it is a supportive, encouraging and fun scenario,” Dr. Stricker says.

“Avoid a situation that could be filled with pressure and an overly competitive mindset that would be inappropriate for young children.”

4. Promote safety

Parents should learn the risks associated with the sports their children play. Sports and recreational activities account for many emergency room visits each year among young people. Many sports-related injuries are preventable, however.

For their safety, make sure they:

  • Have the right gear and equipment.
  • Don’t let them play through pain.
  • Make sure they stay hydrated, especially in hot weather.

Related tags: