I got an e-mail from a neighborhood dad the other day asking me if my son, Alex, would join his indoor travel soccer league that plays Friday nights at 7 p.m. “This is probably going to sound bad,” I typed back, “but Friday at 7 p.m. is cocktail hour in my house.” I added a smiley face so he'd think I was joking (I really wasn't). Alex is 5. Five! Why does he need to be on a travel team? Yes, he loves soccer, and as a former athlete, I am all for youth sports. But his rec league seems like enough right now. I'll have years to sacrifice my weekends for Alex's sports schedules, so why start when he's still in kindergarten?
I'll tell you the reason: It's called the professionalization of youth sports, and it's happening in gyms and on fields and rinks across our country, says Dan Gould, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. “Kids are competing at younger and younger ages—and focusing too soon on training, performance, and outcome.” You've probably heard about parents who hold their kids back from kindergarten until they're 6 so they'll be more ready academically—now there are some who do it for the sole purpose of having their kid be bigger, faster, and more coordinated than his peers. “I see kids practicing six and seven days a week,” says Elizabeth Pieroth, Psy.D., a board-certified neuropsychologist who treats patients from 5 years old to pro (she's the concussion specialist for the Chicago Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox, and Fire). “I'm very pro sports—for all the good things kids get out of them,” adds Pieroth, whose sons play hockey and baseball. “But it's gotten so crazy-competitive: Are we burning them out?”
Starting sports young is not the problem; it's the intensity and the specialization (playing the same travel sport year-round) that troubles so many experts. “With the exception of gymnastics and figure skating, ideally kids wouldn't be focusing solely on one sport until they're around fourteen,” says Gould. Before then it can lead to injury because growing bodies need a break. And there are benefits to being a multi-sport youth athlete. “Playing a variety of sports allows kids to use different muscles and increases cognitive brain activity,” says Julie Gilchrist, M.D., pediatrician and medical epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Kids who are involved in a bunch of sports get cross-training, if you will.”
Wondering how to deal with the head-scratching, mouth-gaping, how-do-I-not-screw-you-up-for-life stuff that sports throws your way? We've got it covered.
Sitch: Your 5-year-old is the one picking weeds on the soccer field—but all her friends play. Keep her on the team or try again in a few years?
Solution: Becoming distracted is normal at this age. The real question is, does she want to play or are you dragging her to the games? “Ask her if she enjoys being part of the team,” says Patrick Cohn, Ph.D., a youth sports psychologist in Orlando and founder of youthsportspsy chology.com. “If so, she may like it for the social aspect rather than the playing part, and that's OK. As she develops her skills, she may want to join in more.”
Sitch: Your kid gets mad and cries when she loses
Solution: “Ask her what she hopes will happen in the game, and why—she may think you or the coach expects her to win every time, so you need to make your goals for her clear as well,” says Cohn. Then you can help her set and focus on manageable tasks to perform (making great throws, catching the ball, listening to the coach). “Don't dwell on errors or losses,” says Cohn. “You can talk to her about what she did well or improved on after the game—use it as an opportunity to get better instead of lose confidence.”
That said, all athletes, even the youngest ones, must know that losing is a part of sports, adds Cohn. Tell her about times when you or Uncle Steve or an older sibling had to deal with a heartbreaking loss, too, so she sees that it happens to everyone.
Sitch: The coach's frequent yelling and emphasis on winning is freaking you out.
Solution: Give the coach your feedback in private—not when he's busy coaching or in front of the kids, recommends Cohn. “Explain that you want your young athlete to focus on the process, not on the product,” notes Cohn. “You can say that you're worried that focusing too much on winning could undermine his confidence. This is a common challenge—kids begin to pressure themselves and start worrying about failing or focus too much on avoiding mistakes.” End your conversation positively—compliment him on something good that he does and add that you know he wants what's best for the kids on the team, too.
Sitch: You want to steer your child toward one sport—or away from another.
Solution: Cohn and most experts recommend parents introduce athletes to several sports and then allow them to decide which they prefer, but that's not to say you can't be a little sneaky. “Don't introduce her to sports you do not like,” says Cohn. Also, kids tend to gravitate toward the sports you play at home. So if you want a future Tiger Woods, get a bucket of balls and start swinging. Still, some of this will be out of your control (e.g., when the entire third-grade class decides that hockey is the coolest and everyone must play), so you have to be prepared to either cave or stay strong.