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Does Your Toddler Need Sports Training?

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Guest blogger Kate Tuttle: Here's one to add to the "look how crazy some folks are" file: A recent article in the New York Times described a rise in programs and products aimed at parents who want to begin sports training for their very young children -- even those too young to sit up.

Toddler with soccer ball
Not surprisingly, pediatricians and doctors who treat sports injuries urge parents to be skeptical, pointing out that there's no evidence such early introduction to sports will help a child acquire greater skills later and warning that a too-early focus on sports could lead to injury. One of the people interviewed in the Times article, former NBA player Bob Bigelow, blamed our current hypercompetitive parenting culture: "This is 'Baby Mozart' stuff; you play Mozart for the baby in utero and it comes out some sort of fine arts major," he said. "There are millions of American parents worried to death that their children might fall behind somebody else's kid. So the emphasis in youth sports has become more, more, more, younger, younger, younger."

I think he has hit the nail on the head. As most parents know (or will know, once their kids hit kindergarten), some kids are more ready for organized sports activities than others. Not every kid is going to be a superstar, no matter what parents do -- but that doesn't stop a certain breed of parent from trying. Those who take their child to The Little Gym, where kids as young as 4 months old take "classes," will see that a lot of what goes on there is pretty much what happens in a park, playground or basement rec room. There's nothing wrong with the activities -- bouncing, balancing, playing with balls, learning to do somersaults -- but I'd question whether anyone needs to pay money for the opportunity.

If parents no longer feel they can give their kids the space and freedom for physical activity and rough-and-tumble play, that's a pretty sad indictment. If they think that by enrolling their kids in one of these programs they're going to turn their son or daughter into the next Tiger Woods or Lindsey Vonn, that's even sadder -- but that's what some of these products promise, despite (unintentionally hilarious) disavowals like this one: "We're not suggesting your kid will turn pro; we have to be careful about that," said Gigi Fernandez, a former professional tennis player, who is one of the founders of Baby Goes Pro.

As this commonsense guide from the Mayo Clinic suggests, unstructured physical activity is best for kids up to the age of 5. After kids hit elementary-school age, they are more ready -- physically, intellectually, and socially -- to participate in more organized sports. As for specialized training, it seems clear that putting your toddler through skills sessions will have a bigger effect on your bank account than on her future Olympic medal count.

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3 comments so far | Post a comment now
Jilly December 4, 2010, 7:51 PM

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why everyone wants push their children so hard. Read sooner, write sooner, compose a symphony by age 2…for god’s sake people, they will learn to do all these things in their own time provided they are loved and cared for properly. Talk to your children, involve them in your daily activities, they WILL learn and if there is a problem, your pediatrician and you will figure it out and make adjustments. If your child has abilities above and beyond the average child, you’ll know it, but not because you had them reading at 9 months of age or whatever ridiculous thing you push onto them. And that is not to say a talent may not show itself at a very early age, I’m just saying that natural talent will show itself and then you can nurture it. Not everyone is meant to be superstar and that is okay. Until then, just give them your best and love them, care for them, educate them, build their character, show them how to be the best human being they can be and if they grow up to be a upstanding, well-respected, loved, successful person….well…you have done a damn fine job!!

Steph December 5, 2010, 1:47 PM

A neighbor of mine told me that her 5 yr old son’s flag football coach told her that if they don’t start playing football by age 5, they’ll never “make it” in football. I wonder how many NFL players started playing organized football at 5…my guess would be very few. The same coach starts tackle ball at age 7.

My stepson didn’t start playing soccer until middle school, and now he’s entertaining college athletic scholarships. I agree with the article, all this is buying you is a lighter wallet.

michelle December 6, 2010, 10:06 AM

Oh please. That was just another bogus trend piece from the NYT that is not based on reality. All of the parents I know who do Little Gym, Lil Kickers, etc are doing it to get out of the house and to socialize with other grownups. And we did AYSO soccer at age 4 because my kids asked to — they loved the uniforms, running around and goofing off with other kids, etc. All these programs themselves are very laid back and age appropriate. The whole premise of that article rings totally false to me.

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