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Team Sports for Kids: Getting Started and Keeping Perspective

A guide to help parents decide the right age to begin, whether to sign up for a recreational or competitive travel team, how to avoid burnout – and more

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Soccer, baseball, basketball and a bevy of other team sports can be fun, fulfilling parts of childhood. But knowing when – and how much – kids should dive in can be a challenge for parents. Depending on organization, expectations for commitment and performance can be high. And some moms and dads grapple with the pressure, real or perceived, for their kids to excel in one sport at an ever-younger age.

So how do you decide if – and when – you should enroll your children in a community team or sign them up for a premier league? While each child and each circumstance is different, there are some general guidelines to consider when signing your child up for any team.

Finding the right age

Sports programs are offered for kids early on – you can even find introductory classes for toddlers. As long as they're focused on tykes having fun and developing skills, it can be a great opportunity, says Liz Jones, a physical education teacher at Boulan Park Middle School in Troy.

"When children are young, they should be involved in as many different sports as possible," says Jones, who herself played soccer and softball as a kid. "That way they will learn a variety of skills, and they'll learn which sports they enjoy."

Rob Gotlin, a New York City dad of three and author of Dr. Rob's Guide to Raising Fit Kids, agrees. He believes putting too much pressure on children to be competitive at young ages is setting them up for failure.

"Younger children have an attention span of about 30 seconds," Gotlin explains, which makes focusing at games and practices difficult. "A child doesn't even fully understand the idea of competition until they are older – say 7, 8 and 9."

Also, Gotlin warns there are medical risks associated with kids who are working their bodies – and muscles – too much, too soon.

Both Gotlin and Jones say concentrating on one sport – and participating in a competitive team – shouldn't be considered until a child is around 10, the so-called "double digits" era of childhood.

There are definitely exceptions to that rule, however. For example, if parents are both involved in a sport, say martial arts, perhaps their child grew up participating and can handle more intense workouts than similarly aged peers.

But for most children, experts advise holding off on more competitive team situations until at least middle school.

Recreational teams

Different sports teams have different focuses and expectations of their young athletes – and their parents.

Chris Novak runs an i9 Sports program that serves east Oakland County families in Lake Orion, Rochester and Royal Oak – which covers basketball, cheerleading, flag football, soccer, camps, lacrosse, baseball and volleyball.

Novak coordinates teams and then sets up practices and games at area schools and churches. He draws coaches from the community and parents. These coaches go through a training program (and a backgr

ound check), so that they understand i9 Sports' approach: that kids should have a positive experience as they participate.

Coaches are encouraged to let every child play at least 50 percent of the time during games – and get a chance at every position. They also learn that the goal is to have fun and become fit, not on winning or losing games.

"We are a recreational program, as opposed to a super-competitive program," explains Novak, who says i9 Sports' approach is akin to what you might see at a YMCA.

Find similar recreational and fun-focused programs in your own neighborhood through your school, church, Y and similar groups. Expect your child to have one practice a week, directed by a volunteer coach, and weekly games.

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