However there are some potential rough patches to work through -- from choosing the right sport, to finding a nurturing team and supportive coach, to learning to watch from the sidelines without making your kid anxious. We've amassed a playbook of strategies to help kids get in the game and thrive -- win, lose, or draw.
Help your Cub Master the Basics
Most preschoolers aren’t ready for organized team sports, pediatricians say. They’re still learning fundamental motor skills, and getting those motions down is critical for excelling at sports later. If your cub focuses on specific skills like batting and kicking before they masters skipping and jumping, they might struggle with running and balancing efficiently. This can make it harder for them to advance in the sport and possibly lead to injury.
Getting your child outside for at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day will give them time to master the basics. Some activities can be adult-led, but unstructured play, is best. She’ll get a good workout just running around a playground and climbing on equipment. Keep your child excited about exercise by changing activities and thinking outside the ball. Swimming and tumbling are good, age-appropriate options, and dance lessons, riding bikes, and hiking as a family all count.
Don't Overdo It
Sports are such a big deal that sometimes parents can go too far. Some encourage an intense focus on a single sport at an early age, while others enroll their child in four activities at once. However, both approaches can backfire. Too much monotony -- one sport several times a week plus weekend matches -- can make it feel more like a job than a fun activity, but too much variety can leave her too busy to learn to love any one of them." What's the magic number? At this age, kids should play two or three sports a year, so they get a broad range of skills.
Keep It Low-Key at Home
Just make sports seem like fun and support your cub’s interest by using the time to play and move. And don’t worry that skipping sports now will set your child up to become a bench warmer. Starting in elementary school or later can produce top athletes, especially if they’ve been active during childhood.
Give Your Cub a Say
Assuming he's tried out a few things over the last couple of years, your child has probably developed some preferences. Ask him what team he'd like to join -- you may be surprised by the response. Parents often put their child in the same sports program that their friends are in, but that's not always the best approach. If your son hates soccer, for instance, or isn't good at it, he could feel like a failure, and may resist trying other sports.
Explain the Real Commitment
Before sign-up day, make it clear to your child that they must participate for the whole season and that if they don’t enjoy it, they can try something else next time. It's reasonable to expect a 7-year-old to see a season through from start to finish; this is the age when kids are learning responsibility in school too. Some kids may want to quit after two practices if they're struggling or it's harder than they expected. But if they stick with it for a while, their skills will improve and they might like it enough to play another season.
Find the Right Sport
If your 3- or 4-year-old has his heart set on a team sport, first do your homework. Scope out several if you can and watch a few sessions to get a feel for the tone. Preschool sports should be more like play than a lesson or drill. A T-ball league might focus on running or skipping while incorporating a ball. Coaches should emphasize fun, socialization, and key motor skills.
It may be easiest to start with a big-ball sport like soccer, since most preschoolers are still developing coordination. Pay attention to the skill level of the other players. If they are way above your child’s level, they may not enjoy it. Even if they fall in love with one sport, they shouldn’t play it year-round. Repeated strain on the same muscles can increase chances of injury. Also, research has shown playing multiple sports can make kids better at all of them, because of the crossover in skills such as teamwork, ball passing, visual tracking, and agility.
See the Big Picture, Not Just the Score
When children show talent at this age, some parents daydream about college scholarships -- and then push their kid to the brink of burnout with private coaching and travel teams. Many people forget why they wanted their child to play a sport in the first place: for social, emotional, and physical development. If you put too much emphasis on winning or rankings, your cub may get stressed out and fear letting you down. Instead, show interest in your child's overall experience by asking open-ended questions such as, "What did you learn at practice?" For every mistake you want to correct, give five specific comments about what your kid did right. ("Rotate your right shoulder" is more effective than "you can throw harder.")
It's normal for kids at this age to measure themselves against their teammates and opponents. But because of age cutoffs and mixed-age divisions, kids often compete against others who are nearly two years older, and that can mean significant height, weight, and skill differences. Unfortunately, when 7-year-olds realize that they're not as good as their 9-year-old teammates, they may get down on themselves and want to give up. Everything can change once kids hit puberty. Some kids improve, others will get worse, and there's no way to predict how it will turn out. Remind your child to focus only on their own performance and not on other kids. If your child plays an individual sport, encourage them to log their times and scores, so they becomes accountable for their progress throughout the season. But also help them learn to handle errors when they do occur in order to avoid a meltdown mid-competition.