Between 30 and 45 million U.S. children 6 to 18 years of age participate in organized sports, according to Marianne Engle, clinical assistant professor at the NYU Child Study Center. Before your child joins their ranks, consider whether she's ready to handle the physical and emotional requirements of a sports team. Signing her up too early will make her want to stay on the bench.
She might be an old pro at kicking a soccer ball at age 5, but she's not necessarily ready for everything that comes with playing sports at this age. According to KidsHealth.org, most children aren't physically ready to succeed at sports until they reach 6 or 7 years old. Before this age, she probably doesn't have the coordination to combine skills such as running, kicking and catching. Sports that require complicated strategies and quick decision-making such as football, according to HealthyChildren.org, are delayed until a child is at least 10 years old. While organized sports aren't generally appropriate until she reaches first grade, a younger child can still participate in unstructured physical activities. She can kick a ball around with friends, take swim lessons and sign up for individual activities such as ice skating or gymnastics.
A child is not automatically ready to join a team once she celebrates her 6th birthday. She needs to understand the self-control and attitude necessary to successfully play sports. A child who is going to play team sports should be able to share and take turns without throwing a fit, because she'll be expected to pass the ball to a teammate or sit on the bench while other children play. According to HealthyChildren.org, wait to sign her up until she understands that losing is a natural part of playing a sport and shouldn't affect how she sees herself. Watch how she reacts to losing at a board game or making a mistake on a school assignment. If she can shrug it off rather than having a tantrum or beating herself up for days, she's probably ready to handle the rigors of a competitive sport.
Once she's ready, comes the hard part: picking a sport. If your area has multiple children's sports teams and you're unsure which game is appropriate for your child, try showing her clips of teams playing the available sports and let her pick. Ask the coach what his philosophy is before you make her enrollment official -- when kids are playing, coaches should focus on fun and teamwork rather than winning -- and find out what financial and time requirements are involved. KidsHealth.org recommends considering how the child's team obligations will affect her and the rest of the family. Don't sign her up for a team that will take up all her free time or interfere with her siblings' activities. Don't forget to verify that your child wants to play sports before signing her up. Engle suggests encouraging a child who doesn't want to play on a team to participate in individual sports such as swimming or tennis.
Even in a no-contact sport, your child risks injury. Before she attends her first practice, Boston Children's Hospital suggests taking her to the pediatrician for a sports physical. Ask her coach to recommend pads, mouth guards, helmets and other safety gear that she might need, and buy new gear that is designed for use on a child her size. Keep her home if you think the temperature is too hot or cold for her to play safely, and bring a few bottles of water to every practice and game. Remind her to drink whenever she has a break from the action. Remember that, even on a team where fun is the goal, a young child can buckle under the stress of playing sports. Boston Children's Hospital suggests watching out for signs that your child is stressed such as vomiting, headaches or loss of appetite. These signs are especially telling if they strike on the day of practice or a game.
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