Is Your Preschooler Ready for Team Sports?

By Emily Parks

Two years ago, Audrey Gunther could see that her active 3-year-old needed a new outlet.
“Jack had all this excess energy and would run around the park like crazy. So, we thought he might be ready for some team sport as a way to burn that excess energy,” says Gunther, of Federal Hill, who eventually signed up her son for a fall soccer program.
For many parents of preschoolers, figuring out when to enroll their children in a sport, which sport to enroll them in—and even if they ought to do it in the first place—are not easy decisions. They wonder about the benefits of participation and how their child would handle obstacles such as shyness, lack of interest…or just a lot of crying!

Balance of Benefits
Sports programs tailored for children ages 3 to 5 are offered through local county parks and recreation leagues as well as the Y of Central Maryland. They include football, basketball, martial arts, tennis, lacrosse, t-ball, and soccer.
Troy Weaver, vice president of Health & Wellness for the Y of Central Maryland, says that many preschool sports programs at the Y are mainly about practicing skills, incorporating games to teach them and enhance their development.
“We play games that teach them how to play the game,” Weaver says.
He cites an example of a relay game in lacrosse during which each player takes a turn running to the ball and scooping it up with his or her stick, then laying it down.
“We’re teaching them games that teach them how to handle the stick, how to scoop up the ball,” explains Weaver. “They don’t realize they are learning the skills needed to play lacrosse, but they are, just in a game fashion.”
Weaver notes that playing on a sports team also helps kids develop their locomotive, spatial and coordination skills, third-person body and visual awareness, and, perhaps most importantly, their socializing and teamwork skills.
Roy Longanecker, of Locust Point, coaches a fall team of 3-year-olds with the South Baltimore Youth Soccer League. He agrees with Weaver, noting that playing soccer introduced his daughter, Elise, 4, to the concept of teamwork.
“It was interesting to watch them transition from the idea that everyone gets a turn to kick the ball, to the sense that it’s all of us trying to score a goal as one group,” says Longanecker. “Some of the kids kind of got it, some never did, but some started to get the idea that we’re all working as a team to try to accomplish something.”
Jennifer Lake, vice president and head instructor at the Comprehensive Survival Arts Martial Arts and Wellness School, in Owings Mills, adds that participation in her sport can improve a child’s physical balance and control and teach discipline and structure as well as build confidence.

Ready, Or Not?
However, not all preschoolers—especially 3-year-olds—are ready to play a sport.
Looking back, Gunther feels her own son Jack was not quite ready at 3.
“Most of the time, the kids were running around crying and not really understanding the game,” says Gunther. “It wasn’t until Jack had turned 4 that he really started to enjoy it and figure out the purpose of the game.”
She also notes that her 3-year-old son, Bryce, who played soccer for the first time this past fall, would be crankier during a game that was scheduled too close to naptime.
Heather Stone, of Otterbein, mom to Henry, 6, Leo, 3, and Elijah, 18 months, agrees with Gunther. Stone signed Henry up for soccer at age 3, but found it was too hard on him to be separated from her during the games.
“The skills I wanted him to gain—such as sharing, taking turns, and playing fair—were better gained in an unstructured environment, such as just having him play with his friends,” she says.

Make It a Good One

But, if the parents of a preschooler do decide to sign their child up for a sports program, what can they do to help him or her
overcome obstacles such as shyness or reluctance to play? How can they help make sure their child’s experience is a good one?
Weaver advises parents to be participants, watching the games and playing the sport with the child at home, whether it’s kicking around the soccer ball or playing catch.
What if the child says he doesn’t want to play anymore, or even show up to the games?
Lake advises parents to take the child to the games anyway, with the understanding that he or she needs to sit and watch, but does not have to participate.
“I’ll tell the child, ‘Join in when you’re ready to join in,’” Lake says. “And they always join in!”
Longanecker advises parents to keep their expectations low and not to apply any pressure regarding participation. He notes that, in soccer, some children enjoy simply
running around on the field but have no interest in kicking the ball.
“Don’t expect too much,” Longanecker says. “Look at each game as a semi-organized, go-outside-and-run day.”
Longanecker wants his daughter and her teammates to associate going to the games with fun. If they do, he says, then he has succeeded as a coach regardless of what they’ve learned about the game of soccer.

Wide World of Sports
Weaver advises parents to choose a sports program for their child according to what the child might like—not what they like.
“Don’t pick the sport that you liked as a kid,” he says. “It may not be your child’s niche. They have plenty of time to be specialized, so give them a lot of variety.”
“Our plan is to just let him try everything,” says Gunther whose son Jack, now 5, still plays soccer but really enjoys t-ball.
Once they’ve picked the sport, Lynn Morrell, director of Programs for the Baltimore Tennis Patrons, advises parents to simply let their child play.
“Let them enjoy play,” she says. “We don’t want to bring our standards for what is good tennis to a 3-year-old. Whatever they’re able to do, that’s great. If it’s reinforced to them that ‘I’m playing tennis,’ they will go back and want to do it again and again.”
Longanecker adds that participation at any level is good participation.
“If your child kicks the ball twice and doesn’t want to kick it again but just wants to stand in the middle of the field, let him,” Longanecker says. “Let him stand there and be a part of it at whatever level he wants to be a part of it.” BC

© Baltimore’s Child Inc. January 2010