It's a rare parent who doesn't secretly hope for a naturally athletic child, especially now when sports stars are larger-than-life figures, known for their ability and for the money they earn. And it isn't too long before children get caught up in the excitement, collecting cards, going to games with their parents, rooting for their favorite teams and individuals. Watching sports on television is practically a national pastime.
But wait! Your child isn't even 4 years old. Time for a reality check. What skills does your still-3-year-old possess? She is just learning to catch a bounced ball and to throw overhand, though her accuracy is a bit iffy (she doesn't have much, actually). She can kick a ball forward most of the time but not in other directions. She's just beginning to be able to pedal a three-wheeler, hop on one foot, and throw a ball with one hand. But it will be another two to three years before these skills are perfected.
Ready or Not
Skills are one thing. Readiness is another. Because each child is unique, there's really no way to predict the age at which yours will be ready or willing to participate in group sports. Sometimes a child will signal readiness by an eagerness to play catch. Or perhaps you'll notice that his play with other kids is evolving into group play featuring different, often changing roles for different kids.
For a child to participate in any game with other participants, he should be able to follow three-step commands. (For example: "Go to the net with Sarah as the goalie; do 20 kicks, and then change places.") He also should be willing to wait his turn and act after he's received instructions. Some kids will need a lot of encouragement and some time in the bleachers to get comfortable with the whole athletic scene. The demands for performance can be overwhelming, especially for a shy child. In terms of readiness, temperament is more important than skill. Sports participation should never produce ongoing anxiety, persistent reluctance, or sadness in your child, no matter what age. Watch his responses to know what's right for him.
Choosing the Right Sport
What is right?
The Trouble With Teams
Even though you may be observing signs in your preschooler that he's ready for a team, team sports are usually not ready for him. For one thing, a child this age has trouble keeping more than one thing in his mind at a time. ("Run! Run fast! Whoops, I forgot to kick the ball.")
Also, preschoolers have a hard time anticipating the results of their actions. ("I kicked the soccer ball, but I can't keep running until I see where it ends up.") It's quite a complicated process for a preschooler to get instructions, understand them, and then take the appropriate action. Generalizing is also an issue: Let's say the last time Matt kicked the ball to Josh everyone cheered. So Matt reasons that he should do the same thing next time he gets the ball, even if it isn't appropriate at that point in the game. Who could blame him?
Remember, then, if you think your child is ready for team sports, to limit your own expectations. Rules are too complicated to learn at this age. Just being outside and active, meeting other kids, and perhaps wearing a cool uniform are enough. There's plenty of time later to make athletics more important. For now it should only be lots of fun.