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Ages & Stages

Sports Goals and Applications - Preschoolers

Skills are acquired primarily through unstructured play, so active play such as tag should be encouraged. If there is any organized play, it should be very brief, with the majority of time spent having children just playing among themselves. Frequent changes of players should occur to expose children to different positions. Do not keep score. True competition offers no advantage and should be avoided during this age group.

The primary goals of sports activity for toddlers and young children should be playfulness, experimentation, exploration, and having fun. Shudder at the thought, I know, but face the facts. Children just begin to develop the intellectual and thinking skills necessary for next-level activities and safety at around ages 5 to 6 years. And if that did not make you gasp, this one will—research shows that participation in sports programs during the toddler years does not seem to give any long-term advantage for future sports performance. Uh-oh, does that mean that spending 3 hours a day practicing with your 4-year-old daughter won’t make her a better kindergarten or grade-school athlete? That’s right. Specific skills can be refined by repetitive practice only after the right level of motor development has been reached. Basic ground-level activities for children such as walking, running, swimming, tumbling activities in beginner dance and gymnastics, basic soccer, basic martial arts, and skating are suggested appropriate activities. In addition, walking, running, and swimming are activities that also develop fundamental skills that are important for safety throughout life.

These activities can form sturdy foundations for exercise and sports participation on which future skills can be building blocks for the Great Wall of Sports. A few words of caution, however—just because these activities can be started early in life does not mean that these sports should be aggressively pursued early in life. We have all seen Olympic moments showing the rise of sports stars who started their sport at age 3. But that does not mean they started training substantially or competing heavily at 3 years of age. These situations are often misinterpreted by other parents and young athletes because we don’t always know the rest of the story. Those youth later became Olympians because of many more factors than an early start date, and research from the US Olympic Committee shows that most Olympians distinctly point out that they had support from their parents, were not pressured, and stayed in their sport because of the love of the sport and because they had fun. Sports activities may be started early if approached with a non-pressure attitude that focuses only on basic skills and not with the presumption that this is the beginning of an Olympic or professional debut.

The benefits of general exercise and sampling many sports along the way are critical for your child to have the most potentially  successful outcome possible. However, some children decide (or their parents decide for them) to specialize in one certain sport at a very early age. This practice is actually not supported by the AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness because of the potential risks from premature sports specialization. Repetitive actions and long hours of training can overload the young growing body and cause overuse injuries such as tendonitis, growth plate injuries, and stress fractures. As I mentioned at the beginning of the book, overuse injuries are becoming rampant among our young athletes. The earlier a child starts to become exclusive with one sport, the sooner she can show signs of overload. Swimmers are notorious for getting inflammation of the shoulder because of the high number of arm strokes taken during practice. Kids in throwing sports can stressfully widen the growth plate of the shoulder or elbow. Gymnasts can overload the growth plate in the wrist, causing it to finish growing prematurely. Sports with repetitive bending or twisting can cause microscopic fractures of the spine. Sing with me—“These are a few of my least favorite things.”

Specializing in a sport too early may also lead to lopsided skill development. This may not appear to be a big deal if the child is good at that sport. Yet, if that child is only good at one thing and is then injured or wants to change sports, she will find herself at a deficit. Focusing on only one sport at an early age has its mental cuts and bruises, too. Lack of socialization skills can occur if a child is isolated from her friends and life outside of that sport. If the pressure of competition is emphasized before the child is emotionally ready, the child can become burned out and have to retire from a sport before the teenage years. On the other hand, clearly there are examples of young kids specializing early in sports, having a positive successful outcome, and also transitioning into the rest of society at the end of their sports careers. If only they all could be so lucky.

When children are young, they are a package that is just beginning to be unwrapped! The process is so exciting because you and I cannot predict the final present just by shaking the box. The developmental stages are in motion, so have fun watching your child change. Fun is good for children and adults. Isn’t it amazing how much of the developmental process occurs after the Big 3 of rolling over, pulling up, and walking? As more of these sequences are unveiled, it is my desire that we all respect these natural limitations and allow our children to maximize each level along the way to produce the most successful outcome possible!

Paul R. Stricker, MD, FAAP
Last Updated
Sports Success Rx! Your Child's Prescription for the Best Experience (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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