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What age is best for competitive sports?

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

My 5-year-old daughter isn't interested in playing soccer or Tee Ball. She loves her swimming classes but chooses not to sign up with the rest of her friends for team sports.

That's fine with us. It's one less thing to fit into the week. When we do take the plunge, that will mean less free time, fewer family dinners, and more uniforms to wash and money to spend.

But then I wonder: At the ripe old age of 8 or 9, if she wants to play soccer, will she be far behind peers who started four years earlier? She may be able to join a team, but will she be frustrated when her teammates are better?

Parents often struggle with the question. Did they start their child too early or did they wait too long? The 5-year-old daughter of a friend of mine was told she had to take private lessons before she could join a ballet class whose more seasoned 5-year-olds had started earlier.

My own parents laugh at the thought of a 5-year-old playing an organized sport. They thought I needed serious therapy when I worried that Olivia may be past her prime for Tee Ball.

When I was growing up, nobody played on teams until they were at least 10. Plenty of kids tried out for junior high soccer having never played anywhere but in P.E. class.

I talked with coaches in the area. Many agreed that kids who start on a team early will have an advantage over those who wait a few years. But most put me at ease a little, saying the youngest players don't have the physical and mental development to allow them to get a big jump on kids who start later.

"Soccer is a sport in which there is an advantage to starting at 4 or 5," said Cliff Cook, who coaches the St. Petersburg Raiders girls club soccer team. "At 8 or 9, they might be okay, but if they waited until 10 I think it would be difficult to catch up with somebody who has been playing for three or four years."

In Cook's opinion, football is the type of sport you can jump into at an older age.

"You could start at 11 or 12 and make a big impact on the team just being fast, big and strong," he said. And while a 9-year-old with no experience may have a hard time playing club soccer, she probably would be fine signing up for a recreational soccer league, which has fewer practices and is less competitive.

"In recreational (soccer), it would take about two weeks in my league to catch up because we don't have a high skill level," said Les Ambush, who coaches recreational soccer starting with 3-year-old players. Someone trying soccer for the first time at age 8 or 9 in a club league would definitely be behind, he added.

"The child who starts early will always have an advantage in team sports," Ambush said. "Then there are some kids who are just naturally talented and it doesn't matter." He points out that children can pick up skills in other sports such as gymnastics or swimming that they do participate in and use them in sports they try later on.

Ambush said that when he started out, nobody played competitive soccer until they were 12. He thinks children should wait until they are that old to switch from recreational teams to the more competitive leagues.

Matthew McKinney, Seminole Middle School's boys basketball coach, is all for kids waiting until they are 11 or 12 and more physically and mentally ready.

"I have kids (in the sixth grade) all the time that come here and they say, "Look, I've been playing for four years' and they aren't worth a dime," he said. "If we want to run a shuffle or a motion-type offense, they don't get it. They are not able to see the different aspects of the type of offense you run around.

"A lot of times you can practice as much as you want, but you have not reached that stage of development that would allow you to move up," said McKinney, who also has coached track and baseball.

Chris Metro, the girls basketball coach at Madeira Beach Middle School, says an early start gives kids an advantage in sports, but 8- or 10-year-olds just trying out can catch up.

"The longer you play, like anything else, you're going to be better at the sport. But I've got girls on my basketball team, it's their first year playing and they make the team," he said. "A kid who starts later can go out and practice and in a month accomplish what a younger child might do in two years." With age comes better speed, agility, endurance, balance, concentration and dedication.

Joanne Walker, veteran swim coach and mother of two grown sons who played a plethora of sports, thinks 8 is a good age for children to start competitive sports. But plenty of kids who start at 10 or even 15 can still excel. Her older son made the high school football team his freshman year and had never played on an organized team before. He ended up rookie of the year.

Kids who start too early can burn out.

"If you join swim team at 10 with a serious love for it and decide you're going to beat (the veterans), you'll beat them because you're coming into it fresh," she said. "If you learn the techniques and do the same workout, I'm convinced you'll catch up on the expertise they have."

Swimming offers two different competitive venues. St. Petersburg Aquatics is more competitive with longer and more arduous practices. But the summer swim league at recreation centers has daily one-hour practices and one meet a week where every swimmer gets a ribbon and the judges aren't as particular about strokes.

If your 7-year-old daughter says she wants to start gymnastics and make the Olympic team one day, she's too late. But she can still try the sport.

"If you're hoping to be a competitive Olympian or college athlete, starting at 3 is the perfect age for gymnastics," said Chuck Krause, a coach at Tampa Bay Turners. "Then we have kids who come in up to age 12 or 14 for the first time. They go to classes with the appropriate age and level comparison so no one feels awkward or left behind."

Talk to coaches to find out what team, league and sport is the best fit for your child.

"You want to make sure when kids are doing youth sports they are allowed some creativity," said Cook, the club soccer coach. "I've seen parents and coaches trying to correct everything they do. If the person coaching doesn't understand the psychological development at that age, they can make it not very much fun and they can cause a kid to get burned out very quickly."

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