By Alexa Sherman

From the moment my son could grasp an object, his dad and I put plastic golf clubs in his hands and encouraged him with “Great throw!” when he tossed something at our heads particularly well (bonus points if it was a ball and not his food). He’s now almost 3, and we’re considering buying a toy basketball hoop, teaching him to play tennis…or is it time for tee ball or soccer already?

We’re not crazed sports fans, but you don’t have to be an athlete to realize the benefits of playing organized sports. “No activity can simultaneously contribute to a child’s physical, emotional and social development the way sports can, ” says John Engh, chief operating officer of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. “Many of the skills learned on the field— discipline, teamwork, pride, humility and overcoming adversity—can be applied to everyday life.” But if you’re gathering up the gear and heading for the door, hold on! Introducing children to organized sports requires planning and perspective. Here’s our step-by-step guide.

Explore the options.
Most children can start playing organized sports as early as age 4—and you’ll have probably exposed your little one to some of the options well before then. Playing catch, watching a pro team or passing by a park during a sporting event can all pique a child’s interest.

When you’re ready to explore opportunities, check with your local department of recreation and parks, YMCA or Boys & Girls Club to fi nd teams for your child’s age. Then go check them out together. Talk to the other parents, see how the kids play together and how the coaches act. Most importantly, expose your child to options galore. “Consider team and individual sports; each provides distinct benefits,” adds Engh. Investigate soccer, tee ball, basketball, golf, tennis and swimming.


Follow their lead.
Although you may be eager, it’s crucial to listen to what your child wants rather than pushing your preferences. “A child should never be put on a team against his or her will,” says Engh. Doing so will likely backfire, making them less interested now and later in life.

And it’s not the time to home in on one sport, with visions of pro contracts and scholarships. “This is a time for exploration,” says Dan Doyle, founder of the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island and coauthor of the Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting: Everything You Need to Guide Your Young Athlete (Moyer Bell, 2008). Of course you should be enthusiastic— but with a firm focus on appropriate reasons for registering: to learn, get exercise and make friends.

If your child isn’t interested, give it time. “Some children aren’t ready for these kinds of activities because their coordination hasn’t caught up with them yet,” says Doyle. “So it’s not anything to get concerned about.” Simply make them aware of the opportunities, and wait for them to tell you they’re ready.

Get in the game.
If your child is ready, sign up! Just make sure you pencil practices and games into your calendar, too. “At the beginning levels of play, teams generally have one or two practices a week that last about an hour, plus a game,” Engh says. “At this age, it’s best for parents to attend every game and practice to encourage and gauge the child’s progress.” Your child may be eager to try several sports—and exploring options is a good idea—but beware of over-scheduling. “A child should have adequate time to recover between activities and should not be committed to an activity every day of the week,” Engh says. “Three to fi ve days a week are more than enough.” If children want to practice in their free time, that should always be encouraged—as long as it’s their idea, Engh adds.


Hone those skills.
If you plan to help teach your child a fundamental skill—like catching or throwing a baseball— learn to do it correctly, Doyle says. Otherwise, your child could develop bad habits that might be tough to break. Resources abound: “Take out a book or video from a library, or ask a coach who’s an expert for guidance,” Doyle suggests.

Remember your role.
Seeing your child score that fi rst goal may be a moment you never forget—and watching him drop the ball may be tough to witness. That’s when it’s time to step back, take a deep breath and get a grip on yourself. “Youth sports are for the kids, and a lot of times adults forget that,” Engh says. “Overzealous parents and win-at-all-cost coaches who lose perspective are not serving the best interests of the children.”

Remember to set a good example for your child, not to obsess over the score. Good coaches and parents should be focused on fun, and making sure the child leaves with a smile on his face and feeling like he can’t wait to return for the next practice or game, Engh says. “When adults accomplish that, kids benefi t immensely from the experience and will likely want to continue leading a healthy, active lifestyle.”


Sporting events with younger siblings

Keep these pointers in mind when you’ve got younger toddlers in tow:

Keep them in line.
Just like you, brothers and sisters should be there to observe. “Sometimes, a parent will try to have a younger sibling take part in team activities, which is not fair to the children who paid league fees,” Engh explains. “It’s great to bring them to the games, so long as they remain bystanders.”

Consider their needs.
Some younger siblings may be enthusiastic about going to games and practices—but others may not. “Be careful not to make the sporting activity of the first-born so paramount that the younger child is under pressure to do the same sport, or is being left out,” Doyle notes. You and your spouse may need to divide up your attendance at practices and games—or you might just do something equally special with the sibling before or afterward.

Los Angeles-based writer Alexa Joy Sherman plans to support her 21⁄2-year-old son’s goals, whether he wants to become the next David Beckham…or David Bowie.


Introducing children to organized sports requires planning and perspective. Here’s our guide.

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