While there is little scientific research to support this, I suspect it is fair to say that most every parent is better at sports than their five-year-old.
Parents are able to get comfortable doing reading, math and science with their children, however it seems that even those parents with sports backgrounds have handed over teaching their children the basics of sports to coaches at younger and younger ages.
“Parents are the premier “experts” for their children and they look to us for that guidance in being active in sports,” says Dr. Brian Vernau, pediatric sports medicine physician and father of two young children.
In fact, some parents may not realize that often their child’s youth sports coach is another volunteer parent, very much like they are.
Are organized sports right for my five-year-old?
According to Vernau, children under six do not really understand the sports team atmosphere, and the short interaction period makes it difficult for many to stay engaged.
“Playing at home opens the options to keep it short and interesting,” he said.
Some experts say that children have an attention span of about three-to-five minutes per year of age. So, for example, a five-year-old would be able to sustain approximately 15-25 minutes of attention. This does not support the idea of a five-year-old doing an organized sports practice for 45-60 minutes, and that timeframe doesn’t include:
- the argument with the child about getting their uniform on
- driving to the sports facility (with the fear the child will fall asleep on the way)
- parking and unloading the car
- the discovery that your child doesn’t “feel like it” that day
Social interactions with other children are a common goal for parents who enroll young kids into sports programs, but exploration with a child on playdates may often be just as effective, as most young children under six don’t really understand team-based concepts.
In fact, in most all long-term athlete development models, children six and under should really be in an exploratory phase with introduction to sports and attempt to work on basic physical literacy prior to organized sports.
Developing “Physical Literacy” in your children
“Sports physical literacy, or what we call ‘Mobos’ (motor and ball control) are the foundational sport skills such as throwing, jumping, catching, and running that allow young children to be confident in themselves when they do decide to make their exploration into organized or even school-based recreational sports” says PickUp Sports CEO and Founder, Lakshmi Jayanthi.
PickUp Sports, a mission-based company out of Atlanta, curates sports starter kits and provides four-week home-based curricula for parents and children to explore a variety of sports in the comfort of their own home. [Note: the author of this article is a director of the Pickup Sports Foundation.]
“Based on our surveys of hundreds of parents of young children, we know that parents have a strong desire for their children to be physically active in sports, however they identify some barriers such as time, cost, and interest,” Jayanthi said.
The benefits of young children up to six years old exploring a variety of sports-related activities at home include key elements of motor and ball control skills. Such physical literacy is getting missed in much of early introduction to sports in organized and restricted sports settings.
Children have been asked to compete at young ages prior to six years old in organized leagues where many of them do not have sufficient motor development and socioemotional development to compete. Long term athlete development does not support organized competition prior to six years old and may contribute to early exit from sport if children have a negative experience in such environments.
It may be overwhelming for some parents to come up with sports games for their child, determine what equipment is age appropriate, while teaching their children the basics of sports.
“Exercise deficit disorder is a big problem for our country, and it’s going to get worse”, Dr. Vernau warns.
The future of youth sports is unclear
It is unknown what type of access there will be for youth sports in different parts of the country, and what comfort level parents will have in bringing their children to public sports environments in the post-pandemic era.
So, what is the solution? A different model may be necessary for more parent engagement in the process.
Free play and or “sports play” with young children while at home demonstrates to children the physical benefits of sports play for both the parents and the child. Notably, this is much different than parents sitting on the sidelines.
It is entirely possible for parents to introduce their children to sport to develop basic motor and ball control skills in the comfort of their own home until at least six years old. This concept provides all children with the opportunity to be introduced to sport regardless of socioeconomic status, geography, or physical/intellectual ability or disability.
There are many benefits of parents introducing their young children to sports and physical activity:
- Parents are the most powerful influence to introduce a sport to their children.
- Parents who are more physically active are more likely to have children who are physically active.
- Children who have better motor control before the age of six are more likely to be physically active.
- Kids who play sports have better confidence and academic performance.
- Playing multiple sports and exploring a number of sports during childhood, rather than specializing in one sport, is more likely to avoid overuse injuries, lead to better performance and long term participation in sports.
- The cost of youth sports can be staggering. In a PickUp Sports survey of parents of young children, the costs of organized sports between the ages of four and eight years old can often range between $600-$1200 and about $100-$200 for equipment alone, per child.
It is unclear what the future will hold for children and sports given today’s environment and the results of the pandemic. Will parents feel comfortable sending their children to organized youth sports, particularly at young ages? Will households’ financial situations allow them to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on youth sports again for a six-year-old?
What is clear is that it is a great time to rethink what a parent and child can do together in sports. Not every child needs to be a competitive athlete in sports, but every child should be introduced to a variety of sports at home with their parents so at least they have a chance…if they want to.
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Dr. Neeru Jayanthi is an Emory University sports medicine physician and is considered one of the country’s leading experts on youth sports health, injuries, and sports training patterns.