Many people believe that children should hit the field as young as age 4 or 5 if they want to snag a college scholarship or go pro as an adult. I disagree. Here’s why. From Any Given Monday: Sports Injuries and How to Prevent Them, for Athletes, Parents, and Coaches–Based on My Life in Sports Medicine, with Don Yaeger.
The media loves to highlight the human interest side of sports phenoms. When stories come out about players with unbelievable talent who were showing promise by the age of five, like golfer Tiger Woods, I always cringe a little. There are, of course, some young phenoms who can handle that kind of stress and workload—but their genetic makeup is one in a million! Yes, those stories are interesting, and I am always happy for anyone who is able to make his or her dream of becoming a pro athlete come true. But when I hear about hours spent on the links or in the pool or on the court—when the child is elementary school-aged—I want to pull my hair out. The majority of parents and coaches will hear the same stories and not think twice about it, but, unfortunately, there are others who will view it as a kind of call to action and will begin pushing their child even harder. Some do it because they want the child to earn a scholarship to college, others because they see a big professional contract in the child’s future, and others simply because the parents are living vicariously through the child and want him or her to have all the opportunities that they never had. But whatever the motivation is, the end result is almost inevitably the same: The child will get burned out or, worse yet, suffer a traumatic or overuse injury that will haunt him the rest of his life. Statistics show that young athletes who are subjected to extreme specialization and/or professionalism tend to drop out by the age of thirteen.
Some sports and activities are especially prone to this kind of involvement from a young age, such as tennis, figure skating, gymnastics, and dance. Because of the sophisticated techniques required to compete at the highest levels, parents often believe erroneously that their child will be at a disadvantage if he or she is not enrolled in classes by the age of five or six. By the time the child has reached middle school age, he or she is often committed to four or five hours a day of practice. While I am certainly an advocate of organized sports, this level of intensity at such a young age is neither healthy nor beneficial to the child’s overall health and long-term career prospects. There is nothing wrong with a once-a-week dance class or a weekend soccer league for an elementary school–aged child, but the vast majority of their activity time should be left unscheduled for free play. Not only does that help to stimulate imagination, as they invent their own games and develop active hobbies and interests, but it also cuts down on the risk of overuse injuries because, unlike in a developmental sports program, a young child will not repeat a movement over and over again if it hurts. Variance in motion is far more beneficial to a child than concentrated and repetitive instruction at a young age.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to give your child an advantage. But please, be smart about how you pursue it. I would recommend that parents allow kids to just be kids at least part of the time. When they are healthy teenagers and young adults with an active future ahead of them, you’ll be very glad that you did.