When Should Kids Start Playing?

By Nancy Justis, Iowa Youth Sports Initiative

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Spring sports are here and summer sports won't be far behind.

With spring sports underway and summer sports around the corner, now is a good time to consider the benefits, cost and commitment level to youth sports. It's also time to strategize how to pull kids away from tech and get them more physically fit.

When should kids start playing and how many sports should they play?

Kids are getting started in sports at younger ages these days, which has led to earlier success for some kids.

That could leave parents thinking they're behind the curve and it might be too late for their child to start playing.

That thinking is simply wrong.

"I think parents need to keep things realistic about the growth of their child in their sport, and not compare their kids to other athletes on that team," said Dr. Chris Carr, sports psychologist at St. Vincent Health. "A 10-year-old that's really good at soccer at 10 may not be as skillful when they're 12 and 13. And that kid who is really struggling at 10, may be one of the best kids in high school."

There are plenty of examples of players excelling later in life, like Tim Duncan, who didn't start playing basketball until high school. Soccer forward Alex Morgan didn't start playing soccer until 13 and became the premier striker for team USA.

"Sometimes you find kids that get into their sport later, and they're wonderful collegiate athletes because they haven't been burned out. I see a lot of college athletes at 18 who are burned out because they've been in their sport for 10 years. And they haven't had a break," Dr. Carr said.

As for focusing on one sport or participating in a variety, Dr. Carr said you should leave it up to your kid to decide. He said children who play multiple sports instead of just one have a better mental outlook on sports and enjoy playing more.

Playing multiple sports also helps your body to utilize a greater variety of muscles and build better coordination.

How to get kids off tech and onto a team

If you want your children to be more physically active, you can't just tell them. You need to show them.

"Children emulate the parental models that are there: whether it's a value system, whether it's a work ethic, whether it's physical fitness and activity, team involvement. All of those things are contributed to by parents," Dr. Carr said.

The Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee suggests children ages 6 to 17 need to get in at least one hour of physical activity every day.

When rating children in that age group, the committee gives them a C for playing organized sports, C- for physical fitness, and a D for overall physical activity.

"I think for sure if a parent wants their child to be active in sports, they have to get out, they have to be a role model, they have to be willing to engage in their own fitness behaviors, they have to show that being part of a team is enjoyable," Carr said.

Keeping it enjoyable is key. That's especially true if you want to keep them from getting burned out.

Carr has treated kids as young as 11 with high anxiety because of the pressure parents place on them to perform at the highest level in sports.

Minimizing pressure

Carr said performance pressure isn't the only thing affect youth athletes. He's found the financial commitment required for some youth sports can not only take a toll on some parents bank accounts, but also on kids' mental health.

"For parents, there's an unrealistic expectation that whatever money I put into my kid's youth sport is going to come out in a scholarship," Carr said. "That's just not a very healthy investment idea."

Carr said when parents exhibit this mindset, kids start to feel like they have to succeed in their sport, which takes away some of the genuine enjoyment of playing.

"That's going to impact their motivation and then their performance," Carr said.

There are four main reason children play youth sports, and none of them involved college scholarships or financial motives:

1. Competency: Kids want their skills to develop.

2. Affiliation: Kids want to be around their friends.

3. Fitness: Kids want to burn off excess energy.

4. Fun: Kids want to have a good time.

Carr said if parents begin to resent their financial investment into youth sports, then take that frustration out on kids, it becomes unfair.

"I would encourage parents never hang that over their heads," Carr said. Instead, he suggests emphasizing opportunities like learning life skills such as discipline and overcoming adversity.

Some of the more expensive sports for kids to play include hockey, golf, skiing, snowboarding, lacrosse and horseback riding.

The least expensive sports include soccer, cross country/track and field, swimming, baseball, softball and basketball.