Which sport when?

These expert tips on when to start different sports put your child ahead of the game.

By Loraine Stern, M.D.

Clinical Professor of Pediatrics

Dr. Loraine Stern, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), has been in private practice in a suburb of Los Angeles since 1972. She was co-editor of Healthy Kids Magazine and has edited the American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Your Child's Nutrition.

With the increase in childhood obesity and the tendency of so many children to become couch potatoes, sports fulfill an important function for children's health. In addition, most physically active adults played sports in their school years. If regular physical activity and exercise are established in childhood, there is a good chance that the habit will endure through adulthood.

Essential to increasing the chances of a lifelong love for movement is that children enjoy a sport—that it clearly emphasizes enjoyment, not necessarily achievement. In order to do that, exercise should be appropriate for the child's age, safe, and geared to each child's individual temperament.

When is the right time?

There has been a rise in infant exercise programs in recent years. There is no evidence that these structured programs improve an infant's coordination or have any long-term benefits. Infant exercise programs, however, can create an environment that supports the development of relationships among parents. This is a way for parents to meet people with children of similar ages and to establish a network for sharing babysitting, advice, and friendship. In that sense, I think these classes have value.

Readiness for sports is a combination of motor skills and the ability to understand directions. Before the age of 6, most children are not ready. At age 4, only 20% of children are any good at throwing, 30% at catching, and almost all children of that age do not grasp the idea of teamwork. 

When it is time to choose a sport, let your child try a number of them—not all at once, of course. Let your child know that she can drop out if she does not enjoy it, but she should agree to give the sport a reasonable chance. A month or two allows your child to develop some new skills that can make that sport rewarding. Going from swim team in the summer to basketball in the winter and hip-hop classes here and there is a good idea. Specializing in one sport is better left to the teen years.

Keeping it as safe as possible

Children produce more body heat with exercise than adults do and have less ability to sweat and lose that heat. That makes them susceptible to collapsing with heat stress. Make sure that coaches know about children's fluid requirements. By the time children are thirsty, they are already on the road to dehydration. Liquids should be encouraged before, during, and after play and there should be shade on the sidelines. On hot days, games and practice should be scheduled in the morning or evening, not high noon.

High school and college programs have strict health and safety requirements, but elementary schools are unlikely to have them. I have dealt with coaches telling 4th and 5th grade boys to lose or gain weight for their team. This is potentially harmful and should not be allowed. Make sure the coach knows the warning signs of trouble with diabetes, asthma, cystic fibrosis or any other condition that your child has.

What's right for your child?

Some sports are better than others for certain children. For example, a child with ADD may do poorly with baseball. The long periods of inactivity between plays makes it difficult for the child to maintain focus. When the ball comes to her in the outfield, she may be looking the other way and fidgeting or daydreaming. Soccer or karate, with more sustained activity, may be better.

The child who is not terribly coordinated may do better in a sport that pits the player against himself. Swimming and track, for example, allow a child to strive to better his own record rather than worry about making a goal or a home run for the team.

Remember at all times that winning is the least important part of children's sports. Enjoying the physical activity, learning to work together, developing social skills to cope with both winning and losing, and feeling good about themselves are the goals.