Physical activity is crucial for kids and sports offer a great entry point for getting them moving early on — and keeping them engaged for the long term. Participation in youth sports can promote a lifetime of improved health and well-being, including physical, emotional, social, and cognitive benefits. These advantages — and the excitement of well-meaning parents — help fill the registration lists for many youth sports programs.
But what is the right age for your kids to start playing sports? And what is the ideal number of activities for them to be doing? The answers aren’t always clear, so we spoke with three sports experts to get their take on the best ways to engage kids when they’re young — and how to continue supporting their passions as they get older.
Our expert panel:
- Jen Rezac, director of kids and aquatics education for Life Time
- Ajay Pant, vice president of racquet sports for Life Time
- Alan Arlt, senior director of basketball operations for Life Time
Life Time Editorial | What are the benefits of getting kids involved in sports at a young age?
Jen Rezac | Anytime we can keep kids moving, it’s a win. Active children are more likely to turn into active, healthy adults. But outside of this, sports help with basic life skills like following directions, socializing with other kids, and teamwork. It’s great for their coordination, too.
Ajay Pant | Sports teach basic, fundamental movements — running, throwing, catching, balance, agility, coordination — that help kids develop an athletic foundation and the desire to be active. And these skills are much easier to learn when you’re younger.
Each sport has its own specific benefits, too. For example, the unpredictable nature of tennis helps kids prepare to deal with real-life, unexpected, and uncomfortable situations.
LTE | Are there extra benefits for joining a team sport?
Alan Arlt | Team sports are the ultimate social-skills builder. They teach teamwork and provide kids with a sense of belonging and the opportunity to make friends with similar interests. These are skills that kids need and ones that help kids in the short term as well as in their future relationships and endeavors.
LTE | At what age should I start encouraging my child to try a sport?
JR | It depends on the sport and your child’s needs. For swimming, the earlier the better. At Life Time, we recommend starting swimming at 4 months old, as it teaches your child to be comfortable in the water.
I recommend waiting to join a competitive team until your child is in elementary school. The Mayo Clinic advises toddlers and preschoolers to focus on lessons and free play and to wait to start organized groups at age 6.
AA | For most team sports, the age of 6 is a good rule of thumb. However, don’t discourage your child from starting a new sport at a later age. If they love the sport, they can build their skills quickly with the right coach and training environment.
LTE | My child is really interested in a specific sport but struggling skill-wise. Do you have any advice?
JR | The reason they’re struggling could be as simple as they aren’t ready. Sometimes waiting another year can really help with motor skills or hand-eye coordination. Nothing beats “practice, practice, practice,” but remember to keep it fun.
For example, if your child is struggling to learn swim techniques and that’s all you focus on every time you go to the pool, they are quickly going to find it exhausting. Instead, try a healthy mix of fun and practice. Private lessons are also an option for your child to receive more attention catered to their individual needs.
AA | Encourage your kids to keep practicing. Celebrate the small gains and set micro-goals each week. It can be as simple as committing to practice for a set length of time every day. I also encourage weekly sports classes or private lessons with an experienced trainer to help supercharge their skill set.
LTE | My child is very talented in one specific sport — how do I keep them interested and avoid burnout?
AA | Have open conversations with your child regularly about how they’re feeling — both physically and mentally. Let them set the pace of their engagement with the sport. Every child is different; there is no standard measure of how often a child should play sports.
Kids can get burned out when external forces are pushing them beyond their limits. Instead, let their passion for the sport drive them. As a child, I played backyard baseball every night with neighborhood friends for years. If I could have played eight nights a week, I would have. My parents always had to call me in from playing sports. When parents call their child out to play sports, burnout will set in.
AP | Talent is one thing, but what’s in your heart is most important. Have a conversation with your child around the time they reach the middle-school age and things start to become more competitive: “Are you willing and wanting to commit to this sport? I’ve seen you working hard, and you are getting really good.”
If they are ready to commit to the sport they love, start making short-term goals. At 14 years old, your child’s goal should not be to go pro.
And remember to keep the conversation going throughout the journey. The most important question is: “Are you having fun?” If the answer is “no,” stop. Let your child take a break or continue playing other sports they’re interested in.
LTE | How many sports should one child play?
AA | I strongly encourage delaying single-sport specialization until age 14 or older. Participation in a variety of sports as a child is beneficial from a health and development perspective. Studies show that world-class athletes of team ball sports often delay sport specialization until age 16 or later. Let your child experiment with as many sports as they choose as long as it doesn’t impact other responsibilities at school or home.
AP | Until the age of about 9 years, I don’t care what sports kids are playing, as long as they’re playing something. This is the time where kids develop athletic skills, including balance, agility, and coordination. Once kids reach ages 10 to 12, you can narrow in on one to three sports that your child loves and wants to specialize in. For example, if they love gymnastics, that can be their focus.
LTE | Are there any sports that complement each other?
AA | Several sports require similar forward and lateral quickness, hand-eye coordination, understanding of passing angles, core body strength, and endurance. Sports like soccer, tennis, swimming, lacrosse, basketball, football, and volleyball all have crossover benefits.
AP | There are many sports that complement each other, and tennis is a great example. Its fundamental athletic movements can help with athletic development for just about any other sport.