As you probably know, we at CoachDeck are huge proponents of kids playing sports, whenever and wherever they can. And, generally speaking, as long as we are talking about recreational sports, I'd encourage kids to play at an early age. But after walking past my local youth baseball fields several times this spring, I'm beginning to wonder if starting too early might not be detrimental.
I have not been involved with my local Little League in years but I ran into a friend who is on the board and he was telling me that parents with kids as young as three are pushing to get them started in the league's T-Ball program. When I was on the board, the minimum age we allowed was six.
During my Saturday morning walks past the fields, I'd noticed that the T-Ball players looked exceptionally young. I assumed this was simply a matter of my perspective since my kids are now all grown. And I attributed the lack of organization, or any activity resembling baseball, to inexperienced coaching. Now I know that most of these kids are four or five years old.
I observed parents leaving their chairs to run onto the field to redirect youngsters who were fleeing for the playground. Parents were coaxing and bribing children to come back on the field. If, by some miracle, a child fielded a ball and stepped on a base before the runner arrived, no out was called. There was no point to the “game” they were playing.
You may ask, 'what's the harm in that?'. Well in soccer, maybe it's not as big of a problem because even the youngest tykes will get to kick the ball a few times every game and hear their parents cheer. That might be enough to make them enjoy the experience. But even then, if there is no object to the game, or at least not one they can comprehend, there is a risk that the stress involved in suiting them up in a uniform, strapping on shin guards and whisking them off to a field not long after they've been classified as toddlers might outweigh any “fun” they have..
And we all know that baseball and softball, at any level, can be staid. The less skill the players have, the more boring the game will be. My concern is that, in our earnest efforts to get our kids into athletics as soon as we are able, we might be doing more harm than good. No one could watch one of the “games” I passed this year and say that any of the kids seemed to be having a blast. And we are all aware that younger kids don't have a long view of things. They know if it is fun they want to do it, if it is not fun, they don't. One morning I walked by and saw a team on the field with a total of three players.
This cartoon is meant as a funny caricature, but look at it from a different perspective. Dig a little deeper and take it seriously for a moment. If these parents really were to try and get their tiny child to learn to pole vault with a pole ten times larger than he is, what would happen? The child would have no success, would be frustrated, and would cry and want to quit. It is likely that forever, there would be a totally negative association with that activity. In other words, there is little chance that when he gets older he'll want to give it another try.
Every parent wants what's best for their children and for some, playing sports not long after diapers might work out just fine. But for many, maybe just kicking or hitting the ball around in the back yard or at the park is best. I would submit that if it is skill development you're hoping for, (in other words we want our child to have an advantage by starting early), then playing with him one-on-one and providing reasonable goals combined with lots of praise while making it fun would lead to more improvement than “organized” games that really have no structure. We all hope to give our kids the love of sports as soon as we can. Attempting to do so in a manner that ends up having the opposite of the intended effect is what we need to keep an eye on.
Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org