How young is too young to start playing sports?

jonbuzby@hotmail.comDecember 2, 2012 

I was at a child's birthday party last weekend and the topic turned to when playing sports is age appropriate.

I just sat back and listened to the various opinions. One grandmother offered to pay for her granddaughter to play youth sports. The mother of that daughter, a former NCAA Division I field hockey player, is dead set against her daughter playing any organized sport until she is 5 years old.

One mom started her son in soccer at 4 while another has decided 6 is a good age. A dad, who is a former high school basketball coach, is debating whether his 4-year-old son is ready.

Other mothers and fathers chimed in, and just when I thought I had lost the chance to give my opinion, my wife spoke up: "Jon, you write about youth sports. What do you think?"

I actually think it depends on a number of things when determining what age a child should start playing sports.

First and foremost is the interest of the child. If he or she has no interest whatsoever, it's probably too early to start.

The second is the physical and emotional maturity of the child. If the child is scared to death of any physical contact, he or she won't be interested in being part of a soccer scrum. If his feelings get hurt every time someone takes a toy from him, imagine his or her reaction the first time a child "steals" the ball.

When my middle son was 4 years, he was more than ready to start playing soccer, and since then has successfully played tee-ball and flag football. I can't imagine my youngest son, who just turned 4, playing anything organized right now. And that's another thing to remember -- like all developmental stages, siblings will be ready at different times.

I also think one factor often overlooked by parents when trying to make this decision is how the family will be affected by a child playing an organized sport at such a young age.

If bedtime is 7 p.m. -- to allow for not only a good night sleep but also "down time" for mom and dad -- and practice is twice a week until 7 p.m., that means the family routine is going to be upset two of four school/work nights.

If there is more than one child at home, what happens to the non-practicing siblings the night of practice? Will a younger sibling be dragged out of the house when she would normally be in bed? Will an older sibling's grades suffer because he is sitting in a car at a practice instead of at the kitchen table getting assignments done?

All of these things must be taken into consideration.

I've heard good and bad stories of young kids playing sports, so there is no sure-fire answer. But one piece of advice I always give is that if both parents aren't convinced it's time, it's probably not.

Contact Jon Buzby at and follow him @JonBuzby on Twitter.

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