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See Jane run. See Dick throw.

Why are children starting to play competitive sports at younger ages and specializing by the time they reach middle school?

Just a generation ago, kids came home from school, ate a snack and headed to the neighbor’s or the park for a game of pick-up. There were no parents, coaches or officials keeping score, making rules or organizing playoff brackets.  Of course, these kids all knew the score, but they played because it was fun not for a trophy or scholarship. 

Our kids, on the other hand, start training and lessons in organized sports in preschool.  By the time they’re eight, they can find themselves on a “travel” team wearing a personalized jersey and going for the gold.  

With the prominence of competitive sports in our children’s lives, it seems more kids are starting to compete at younger ages.  Furthermore, the era of the three-sport athlete is gone. Young athletes who once might have gone from soccer to basketball to tennis are now competing in only two or worse simply one sport before they enter high school.   What does this mean for our kid, our families, our communities?    

Join us as we explore the answers to some of the following questions:

  • At what age is a child old enough to handle the pressure of a competitive team?
  • How does your family decide in which sports your child will participate and how often?
  • What factors play a role in a parent or child’s decision to focus on one sport?
  • Do organized sports dominate your family’s time?   If so, how do you feel about this? 
  • Is it okay to force your child to play a sport for the benefit of the exercise or team camaraderie?  
  • How can we help our children learn to win and lose and learn from both experiences?
Lisa Buchman (Editor) March 09, 2011 at 06:10 PM
The timing of this topic is perfect, as moms like me are contemplating which sports to sign kids up for. Soccer used to be just for fall, but is offered in the spring, too. Will my third-grader be behind in soccer if he tries out baseball? He seems to like being on a team and being outside but so far is slightly ambivalent about sports—am I pushing him? Many of his friends are already on travel soccer teams and attending specialized baseball camps, but we're sending him to a general-get-outside-and-play camp. What if he doesn't have the skills to compete in fourth grade? It's tough to know what the right decision is. Mostly we just tell our kids they have to participate in one physical activity because it's healthy, but when your kids don't naturally gravitate toward sports, how do you know which one?
Ayo Hart March 09, 2011 at 06:22 PM
My little ones are a bit young for travel teams yet, but already I have seen first-hand the pressures parents and children face about starting sports and not "falling behind". Every season when it is time to register for activities for the next few months, I sit and look at all the options available to my five-year olds. I figured early on that I would just sign them up for everything at least once or twice since they were too young to really know what they wanted before trying it at least once. Remarkably, in their young little lives, they have already tried lacrosse, soccer, basketball, teeball, gymnastics, ballet and skiing. It's actually scary and worrisome now that I'm writing it all out. The one thing they have very much gravitated toward is riding which they have been doing two or three times each week since they were 2 1/2. Of course, I know that has a lot to do with the fact that every little girl loves a pony, brushing and grooming and the relationship they form with their four-legged friends. When it came time to sign up for the spring, they were finally old enough to say what they had enjoyed and what they wanted to do this spring. Wouldn't you know, they wanted to do EVERYTHING except lacrosse! Not enough time in the week :) I wonder with older kids if the children are saying they want to narrow it down to one sport or if parents just stop asking every season and make the decision for them?
Karen Yarasavage March 09, 2011 at 06:26 PM
How did this transition happen??? I was a 3 sport athlete in high school and a 2 sport athlete in college and now I find myself staring at the calendar and stressing trying to figure out how I am going to schedule the sporting events of my 11, 9 and 6 year olds! Yes, organized sports more than dominate our family's time. It is frustrating to me when kids are quitting sports just at the age that I believe they should be starting them! There is no longer a balance and that is not good. The research says to cross-train, yet our children are being forced to specialize, it doesn't make sense. Is there anything we can do as parents to stop this trend??
Amy Baker March 09, 2011 at 06:33 PM
I struggle with those same questions, Lisa. I have 2 boys, ages 7 & 10 who don't seem as interested in sports as most of their friends. In the winter, I push them to ski since we ski as a family and I think it's good to stay active. Sometimes they grumble beforehand if they are tired, but once they get out there they really enjoy it. In the summer, they swim every day, though not competitively. We also get out and play tennis together. Since they don't initiate any interest, I steer them towards sports I enjoy so we can participate together. I did just sign them up for Little League -- they will take a couple of classes at Pro-Swing before the season starts just to boost their confidence. Hopefully they will enjoy this since many of their friends are in the league. We are also going to try out Tae Kwon Do. They seem interested but nervous so I told them I would take a private lesson with them... maybe it will also become my new sport. Hey, the family that plays together...
Ayo Hart March 09, 2011 at 06:47 PM
Karen, you have hit the core of the question. HOW did this transition happen? I've been coaching for 15 years, and have seen a definitive trend in the teams and athletes I coach. My youngest athletes have been 8 years old right through to the varsity high school athlete some of whom have gone on to compete at the collegiate level. When I first started coaching AAU fifteen years ago, every single one of my athletes played two MOSTLY three sports. Now, I am delighted that in the current environment, most of my athletes continue with other sports, but most have narrowed it down to two -- and mind you I'm speaking mostly about my younger athletes age 10 - 14. More worrisome is that some athletes and/or their parents have opted out of competing for their school or rec team in season to stay with the travel and elite teams off-season instead. As a coach, I wonder if the parents are feeling as Lisa alluded to, that their kids need to be spend more time on the field or court to keep up with those who are getting the private lessons, traveling on the elite teams. It becomes a vicious competing- with-the-Joneses cycle. As a parent, I wonder if the narrow focus comes more out of necessity than desire. Not enough time in the calendar and where do we spend our precious after-school and weekend hours. Perhaps folks are thinking - do I want my child to be the average kid on three teams or the best athlete on one team?
Lisa Buchman (Editor) March 09, 2011 at 07:16 PM
I happen to have a husband who played competitive hockey from age 5 through high school, and loved every minute of it. Captain of this, leader of that—and now he's a tennis professional. But even he has come around to just getting our kids out to be active. Amy, we're also doing sports that the family can do together—tennis, skiing, hiking (also much grumbling but eventually enjoyed!). I'm not sure what we can do to stop the trend except listen to our kids and follow their lead. It's also sad to see modified sports—where the stars do not play but kids who enjoy the game do—getting cut in these tight financial times. Luckily, my kids have had coaches who emphasize learning the game, but we've had a few cases where "better" kids are put on the field during playoffs—and every kid on the team knows it. And this was in 2nd grade. Here's my plea to volunteer coaches everywhere in town: emphasize knowledge and skill over competition!
Alyson OMahoney March 09, 2011 at 07:23 PM
I believe this is a a function of several things, which include but are not limited to: -time: as a mom who works full time locally (with a husband who works full time plus a long commute home), we don't have the luxury of taking our children to different sports all week long -- one sport is already hard, but two or three? Sometimes happening at the same time or back to back? -focus: I want my daughter to enjoy sports, team play and be able to express her athletic talents, but she also has homework, CCD, family stuff, etc.; they don't have seasonal sports anymore that switch each quarter..every sport is year round, so it isn't like you go from basketball to softball to soccer, then back to basketball....it is all three at once, and she could never do 2-3 per week and keep up her schoolwork, plus not let down her teammates on one team by missing games for another team she is on; you have to prioritize to 1 or 2 because you are forced to -fear: I wish my kids would go outside and play a game of pickup in our neighborhood or ride bikes with friends, but they don't because the majority of parents are afraid to let their kids play outside without adult supervision....the alarmist media highlight rare child kidnappings and neighborhood pedophiles, and now kids just can't be kids in their own front yards; I don't even hear kids voices outside on a summer day (sad!). Therefore, you have to sign up for sports programs and pick those that work in your sched....starting the cycle.
Ayo Hart March 09, 2011 at 07:37 PM
I could go on and on forever but don't want to monopolize the conversation. I will say that I have seen even my high school athletes stop playing one sport to foucs on another off-season, and it is truly a shame. I, like, Karen was a three sport athlete and went on to run track at college. I remember my coaches literally talking about other sports in practice to help us. "The footwork in tennis was similar basketball...you're quicker out of the blocks if you stay low like you do when you explode off a crossover, etc." The research shows that young kids are better off when they cross-train, pediatricians encourage us to keep our children active in multiple types of sports, college coaches prefer multi-sport athletes. I wonder WHO is forcing kids to specialize. Is it the parents, the coaches or really just the perception at the end of the day? For me, I know my children have one activity they must do and that is swimming because I think it is a necessity. Beyond that, I will encourage them to participate in a different sport every season. Beyond the physical benefits of cross-training, I think team sports are a huge benefit to kids socially, and I think it's only healthy that they get to know and interact with more than one circle of friends based on one sport.
Ayo Hart March 09, 2011 at 07:42 PM
Amy, that's a GREAT system. I know my girls would have never sat in a saddle at 2 1/2 unless I was at the barn nearly every day myself. They were turning into such barn rats that it only seemed natural they would want to ride. Now, we have my husband hacking around and I must say it is a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon with the family at the barn. I think you make a good point that kids do often lean toward what the parents and family are doing already and that plays I think a role in the trend for some to steer to one sport. It is often the favorite sport of a parent. I know one of my girls claims to "love basketball" but that's probably because she has been hearing whistles, buzzers and squeaking sneakers since she was in the womb. The other one only goes to the game to watch the cheerleaders and dance team. I have to admit I moan when she says she doesn't want to play basketball she would rather be a cheerleader, but that's just because I prefer bball. At the end of the day, I know I have to let her do what she enjoys.
Tony Violante March 09, 2011 at 07:50 PM
When I was growing up I played several sports at one time and it was never enough for me. The difference today is that rec sports are no longer seasonal, but have become year round. My middle daughter (3 children) currently plays soccer, basketball and softball, which does not leave much time for anything else. At one point or another she has expressed a desire to quit one of the sports. Most recently, it is soccer, the sport she has played the longest and one that she plays very well. I think it is unfortunate that children are forced to choose one sport at such a young age, The decision to concentrate on one or two sports should not have to be made until at least High School. So far, I have made the decision to sign her up for all three sports. It has been a point of contention in the household and especially with my daughter. Although I understand the stress she is under, I just do not think she is capable of making these decisions for herself at such a young age. I absolutely agree that there is added stress to "keep up" for these young athletes. Besides the normal game and practice schedules, there is pressure to sign of for ProSwing softball lessons, winter soccer training etc. Where does it end? My youngest is only 6, but has not shown any interest in engaging in any sport. It could simply be that he is still young or he could be feeling the effects that sports is having on the entire family.
Tony Violante March 09, 2011 at 08:05 PM
Not a MOM, but a concerned dad.
Nick Richards March 09, 2011 at 08:08 PM
Fundamentally what we're talking about is a competitive culture aided and abetted by affluent parents. After-school schedules are now crowded with private lessons, rather than the improvised neighborhood play that most children engaged in just a generation ago. Why? Because Mom and Dad can afford to pay for private lessons, and they fret -- as many of the parents posting here unwittingly confirm -- that their 8 year-old will "fall behind" if they don't. It is no coincidence that the increasing focus on specialization in sports at ever-younger ages has coincided with the arrival of businesses -- whichalso didn't exist a generation ago -- devoted to helping Johnny throw, hit, run, kick and swim better than his peers. Baseball, for example, used to be a warm-weather sport. Now you can buy your child indoor batting lessons in January. Oh gosh, Billy's taking batting lessons, shouldn't Johnny take them too? We want him to get picked for a good team in the Spring, don't we? How much for the lessons? I have my checkbook right here. Mom and Dad, if you're wondering where this crazy focus on specialization comes from, look no further than the nearest mirror.
Lisa Buchman (Editor) March 09, 2011 at 10:12 PM
Thanks to the Dads—who are always welcome—for commenting.
Nelson Salazar March 09, 2011 at 11:34 PM
I have four children 10, 8, 5 & 5. I to have struggled with what to enroll them in, when and how often. Many children, including my own, don't like to participate in a sport where everyone on the team is clearly better then they are. We've tried soccer, basketball, baseball, swimming, lacrosse & Tae Kwan Do. It seems that with every sport we try already the majority of their teammates have several years under their belt and my kids are still young. As discussed, some with private coaches, special camps; etc. I see many children dropping sports because they fall behind their peers in skill or abilities. With swimming, as an example, you're not likely to be included in any competitive meets if you aren't a year round swimmer, that costs thousands of dollars excluding private lessons. Additionally, many of the sports have rigorous schedules that dominate most of their free time. With the recent movie, "Race to Nowhere", highlighting how our children are over scheduled and over stressed I for one won't be pushing for multiple concurrent sports and I will probably forbid it. I feel children don't have enough time to just be kids, unscheduled down time. The prevalence of private lessons, personal coaches, training centers; etc. is unfortunate. However, if your child really enjoys a sport it becomes difficult to remain competitive when most of their peers are receiving that benefit. We to prefer sports/activities where the family can all participate together.
Ayo Hart March 10, 2011 at 01:18 AM
Alyson, well put. I never even thought about the fear factor! We live on a cul-de-sac, and I've often wondered where the children were. Maybe a dozen times each year I'll see the kids riding by on their bikes or skating around the circle, but not to the extent I had hoped and expected when we chose this neighborhood. As an AAU coach, I understand the abundance of off-season opportunities and sometimes wonder if our programs are part of the problem. The most glaring point you mentioned was that sports are no longer season to season but rather year round. I suppose that is the first crack at the source of the problem. Perhaps children focus on one sport because they can. When we were younger, there weren't a million club teams, off-season training and team camps to attend.
Ayo Hart March 10, 2011 at 01:43 AM
Tony, that is a difficult situation to be in with your middle daughter. I know when my girls decided they didn't actually enjoy lacrosse last year, I didn't push it and just signed them up for a different sport the next spring. I know mine are only five so it's a big difference, but I wonder if your daughter might be allowed to switch (I like switch more than quit :) soccer for something else? Perhaps she could try field hockey, tennis or volleyball in the fall instead? She's not 5, but she's so young I'm sure it's not too late to pick up a hockey stick or raquet or have a go at volleyball. Who knows, maybe she would grow to love another sport and would quickly surpass even her soccer prowess. I just worry about the undue stress you put on her and subsequently the family by forcing her to play. I understand and agree with your desire to have her continue sports, but maybe as Lisa said we could listen to our children and let them be more a part of the decision. It sounds like your daughter is far from inactive so maybe even one season off is not a bad idea. uh oh too long......
Ayo Hart March 10, 2011 at 01:44 AM
Just my two cents :) and I'm VERY glad to have dads on board! Nick, I think you raise a valid point. I have often wondered if ours is a unique phenomenon or whether it's a trend srpeading across the country. I will say that I have coached everywhere from a middle income Upper Valley, VT area to lower income neighborhoods in Roxbury, MA. I watched while families sold candy bars and offered car washes not so that the kids could travel to Nationals at Disney World but just simply to buy uniforms and cover the basic expenses. So I wonder if everyone is getting caught up in the frenzy irrespective of income level. Keep the comments coming everyone. This is a great discussion this week.
Tony Violante March 10, 2011 at 03:22 AM
This is a very interesting and relevant topic for many of us. A lot of good points have been made. Coach - I agree with you and am also concerned that I may be creating stress for my daughter. I have considered lessening her schedule, but have not thought about switching, just to keep things interesting for her. Might be something to consider. At present, soccer seems to be her least favorite sport. But I can remember, just 3 months ago she didn't want to play basketball. Now she would play 7 days a week if she could. You definitely need to obtain input from children, but the ultimate decision must lie with the parents. One rule I have is; Once you agree to sign up, you have a responsibility and a commitment and you need to play out the season. Next season is another issue.

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