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When Should Kids Start Playing Competitive Sports?

If your child shows an interest or talent in youth sports, the question will crop up quickly: Is it time for a competitive sports team (or for solo competition)? The answer varies depending on the child; some are more suited to the higher pressure that competition brings. Consider these factors as you make your decision.

Is Your Child Old Enough?

Experts in both youth sports and child development agree: Kids are not ready for competition until they are at least eight years old. Before that, they just can’t handle the stresses of winning, losing, and being measured and scored on their performance.

For children under the age of eight, sports should be about physical activity, having fun, learning new skills, and laying the groundwork for good sportsmanship. Competitive sports can be introduced to some children after that age.

That doesn’t mean that all kids will be ready for competitive sports as soon as they turn eight. For many children, it’s not until about age 10 that they can grasp some of the nuances inherent in competition.

Developmentally, kids playing competitively need to have sufficient self-discipline and a good attention span. They need to be mature enough to listen to and respect the coach, as well as the standards of group instruction. If your child is super-passionate about soccer but doesn’t have the patience to perform practice drills over and over, she may not be ready to join a competitive team.

Is Your Child Skilled Enough?

Passion doesn’t always equal proficiency. Your child may adore basketball, but end up riding the bench if he joins a team that’s too advanced for him. Competitive sports teams naturally place more emphasis on winning, which means less talented athletes don’t always get much playing time.

“At eight, nine, ten years old, kids want to know: ‘How am I doing compared to other people? Am I getting better?'” he explains. “The best way to be competitive is to focus on mastery. The best way to win is to beat an inferior team. But what does that do for you?” Thompson asks.

Does Your Child Want to Compete?

Before you put down that deposit, be certain that your child’s heart is in this for real. Do they want to join a team just because their friends are on it? Or because their parents have been (maybe subconsciously) pushing them into it? If they really want to push themself to the next level, great! But if they don’t, they still have the option to enjoy their favorite sport on a non-competitive or rec league, or through pickup games with family and friends.

Also, consider whether team or individual competition is right for your child. This will largely depend on your child’s personality. Some kids thrive on team camaraderie; others want more control over their own destiny. Some kids find being part of a team takes the pressure off. Others feel more anxious, worried that they’ll let teammates down.

Focus on the Right Reasons

There’s an important distinction between “competing to win” and “competing to excel.” Competing to win means trying to “dominate and outperform” others, while competing to excel is about “performing well and surpassing personal goals.”

Athletes who compete to excel are still driven to succeed. But their motivation comes from within: “I want to be the best I can be” instead of “I want to smoke all those other competitors.” Competing to excel does take the emphasis off winning and losing. The focus shifts to using competition as a means of motivating individual achievement. Competing to excel has also been called “personal development competitiveness,” “task-oriented competition,” or simply the “need to perform well.”

Praise your child when she achieves a personal best, even if she doesn’t win a race. Notice and comment when he makes an important contribution to his team, even if the team doesn’t end up with a win that day. Be sure to remind him how proud you are of practice, persistence, and effort, not just outcomes like wins and trophies.

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