Children & Sports

Your 4-year-old gravitates to gymnastics while your 8-year-old is smitten with soccer and your 11-year-old is fascinated by football. Fostering participation in youth sports is great. But be sure to encourage them to play with caution. Not every sport is appropriate for every age, so it’s important to select one that is safe and best suited to your child.

Finding the right fit

According to a 2019 survey conducted by Utah State University and the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., kids play only three years of sports, on average. Many quit by age 11. Why? There are a number of reasons, but the main culprit is the fun factor. Kids are likely becoming discouraged or frustrated playing a sport that may not be a great fit for them.

Sports need to be fun and well-supervised. We shouldn’t expect 6- or 8-year-olds to play organized games in an organized fashion. If you have ever seen 8-year-olds play soccer you understand what we’re talking about. It’s very much ‘herd football’ where the kids just follow the ball around. They aren’t yet at a level to strategize.

You should also be aware of coordination requirements. If your young child is discouraged because she can’t set up or pass a volleyball effectively, consider seeking out another activity or noncompetitive team. Consider the following sports and the coordination and skills needed for each:

  • Baseball: Children begin to learn to toss and catch the ball between ages 35, but don’t consider it as a team sport until between ages 5–9. Baseball doesn’t require much endurance, but it does require moderate strength and hand/eye coordination.
  • Basketball: This sport is okay as a social game, but kids under age 11 usually can’t hit the high basket. Basketball requires good endurance and a high skill level.
  • Football: Contact football generally is not very dangerous because the children’s light weights don’t generate a lot of force during collisions. For this sport, kids need some endurance, moderate strength, speed, and appropriate hand/eye coordination. Football is a complex set of skills and kids may not be ready for organized teams until at least 10 years old.
  • Soccer: Children begin to learn to kick the ball between ages 3–5. They need good endurance and should learn the basic skills of kicking and dribbling before starting organized competition.

Make safety a priority

In all sports with pre-adolescent children, the emphasis should be placed on having fun and building skills rather than on competition. Before puberty, it’s okay for boys and girls to compete against one another, but adolescence is the time for gender separation in sports. This is when the gap between weight and strength widens, making co-ed sports more dangerous.

Get to know the coaches. Both parents and coaches need to make sure that the activity is developmentally appropriate, allows all children to participate, builds skills, and is fun. This will help your child succeed on and off the field.

Taking your child in for a sports physical is a good idea to ensure your child is physically able to play. The doctor will check the heart and lungs, examine the musculoskeletal system, and can provide information about age-appropriate activities.

If you need help finding a physician for your child, call 412-692-7337.


The UPMC Healthbeat blog features several articles by pediatric experts to learn more about children and sports, including: