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Sports and children
DEAR DR.PAUL: My five-year-old son seems to love sports and wants to start playing a team sport. Is he too young?
PEDIATRICIAN DR.PAUL Answers: Thanks for the question. I have wanted to talk about sports and children for some time now, so this gives me the opportunity.
As a father of children who participate in sports, I have seen the pleasure that sports gives them. On the other hand, I have also seen the negative effects of over zealous parents and coaches. All too often, I see coaches pushing children to win, when they should be emphasizing and teaching fair play, skills and, most of all, having fun.
Sports activities should be a source of fun, not stress. As a matter of fact, participating in sports is a great way to teach children to cope with stress caused by any problem. Children should be rewarded for trying hard or gaining certain skills or abilities and should not be punished or criticized for losing. If your child's coach places top priority on winning, you, as parents, have the right to intervene.
Now, for your question: At what age should a child start playing organized sports? Usually, a child should wait until the age of six before starting in team sports. In the meantime, free play is advised until it's time for them to participate in a sport they enjoy.
The age cut off may vary form child to child, as each child is different and matures at a different pace. It is important, however, that players of similar size, maturity and skills be matched as opponents, and the rules or play area should be adjusted for the age, ability and size of the participants. For example, the basketball net could be lowered, or the size of the soccer field be made smaller for younger players.
Then there is the issue of parents "pushing" a child into a sport. Very often children are placed in one sport so they can specialize and excel in it. This sometimes happens if the activity is an Olympic sport. In these cases, the children practise and play very long hours on a daily basis - even during school. I discourage this kind of "specialization" in pre-adolescent children because it has been shown that the more sports a child plays, the more he will succeed in a specific sport later. Generally, pre-teen children are not mature enough to cope with all the stress of practice involved, let alone with the interference in their social lives. For these reasons, I do not think children before their teenage years should be specializing in one sport only.
A discussion of sports in children would not be complete without talking about injury prevention. The risk of injury obviously increases as the contact increases. For example, football produces many more injuries than other sports. Boxing is a high-risk sport for brain damage, and I do not feel that children should participate in this sport.
Regardless of the sport, proper, protective equipment should always be used. On a final note, there is no reason that children with asthma cannot participate in sports. We are able to control asthma in most children with medications and other measures so that they can fully participate in and enjoy the benefits of sports.