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Ask An Expert: Getting Kids Involved in Youth Sports

What should a parent consider when starting their kids in sports at a young age? We decided to get some local expert input on this in this week’s Parent Chat.

Ask An Expert: Getting Kids Involved in Youth Sports

All over Danville, miniature major leaguers and aspiring sports heroes are hitting the newly re-opened fields.

The culture of sport, for fun and competition, is ingrained in the local community. Parents of the next crop of athletes transitioning from pre-school to elementary school are searching the local parenting forums and asking around to find out what the best programs are to get their kids involved in. 

But, what makes a sport, program, or league the right one for your child?

Coaches Jason Wong and Jason Owings have built a thriving youth fitness program at Red Zone Training in San Ramon. They offer both recreational fitness classes to kids as young as three years old, up to 13, as well as personal and group training for competitive high school athletes.

This week, we invited Coach Wong to field our questions about what parents should consider when choosing athletic programs for their young kids.

Patch: At what age is it typically a good time to start kids in organized sports?

Coach Wong: It depends on how they are run. If they are out there just to play and have fun, and learn some of the basics of the sport, then at 3 years old they can get out there and start kicking a soccer ball around, or swinging wiffle ball bats, etc. But, if the league is one that values teaching the sport more so, that’s not as appropriate until 7 or 8 years of age. This is because most kids at a younger age are better off learning movements over individual sports specific stuff. There is a window available to them, when they will soak up coordination and movement based activities. They really should have that before they play any type of specific sport.

Patch: What are some of the things that parents should consider about the sports that they get their kids involved in?

Coach Wong: First, find out what kind of league it is. What is their philosophy? Is it to have fun and get the kids introduced to the sport, or is it to try and win? After that, how often do they meet? Are there three practices a week with two games on the weekends? That might be a little bit much, especially for younger kids.

Also consider how much actual physical activity the child gets. There was a study in 2010 that found that 75 percent of the kids playing softball, baseball, and soccer weren’t even getting the recommended (by the American Academy of Pediatrics) 60 minutes of physical activity daily during their sports practice. Just because a kid is in a sport doesn’t mean that they are actually getting the physical activity they need.

Patch: Why is that?

Coach Wong: There is a lot of time spent on teaching—a lot of time spent standing around listening to coaches talk about stuff—instead of moving and playing. That’s where the issue of too early focus on sports specific stuff comes in, because it’s difficult for coaches to balance getting enough playing around time in, as well as teaching the kids what they need to know about a specific sport.

Patch: What are the advantages and disadvantages of choosing to play a team sport over a more individual sport?

Coach Wong: The social aspect is definitely an advantage of team sports. It’s good for every child, because they have to learn to be a part of something. They learn about sharing and the social aspects that go along with that, which is going to help them in a work environment later on.

With individual sports there is a lot of “I” and “me,” because you are the focus of it. It does however work well for some kids who are advancing (athletically), and may find it more enjoyable to focus on enhancing their own performance.

Patch: Is there an impact on their performance as older athletes if they start really early, at 3-5 years old, versus holding off until they are 6-7 years old?

Coach Wong: If they are involved in sports early, particularly a variety of sports, it’s good because they will learn coordinated movement. If they don’t begin early it won’t necessarily put them back, if you are also playing with them at home, such as throwing balls around, swinging bats and shooting hoops. You probably get the same amount out of that play as you would any organized sport at a young age.

Actually, there is more evidence the other way, that if you begin too early—especially if the leagues are not as fun, and are more competitive—as kids get older, it just sucks the fun right out of it for them, leading to burn out.

Also the amount of work that kids put in from such a young age can lead to increased injury. For example, in baseball, kids pitching too much are tearing ligaments at younger and younger ages.

Patch: You counsel parents you work with to be careful about specializing in any one sport too early. Why is that? 

Coach Wong: If you specialize in one sport at a young age, like baseball, and you play it year round, you can really create muscle imbalances, and over-use injuries in the body. You are also missing out on learning other coordinated movements that you would get from another sport, like basketball or soccer, for example. This creates a lesser athlete. They may be a better baseball player than a lot of other kids, but athletically they will miss out on developing other bio-motor skills that they would get from playing other sports as well.

Patch: For an elementary school aged kid, what does an optimal sports life look like?

Coach Wong: Two practices a week, and a game on the weekends, while also giving them time to play during the other days of the week is good. Don’t overdo it; make sure it’s still fun for them. We’re starting to see kids with anxiety at such young ages, because there is so much pressure for perfection both athletically and academically; I’ve seen it as young as 7 years old. Kids are stressed out. There is no time to be a kid anymore.

Patch: In addition to young children, you also work with teen athletes who are training in specific sports. What are you seeing in their performance that a parent should factor into their young child’s early involvement in sports?

Coach Wong: They are definitely lacking strength overall, and their core development is weaker. They may be strong for their sport, but overall systemic strength is very weak. When you ask them to do movements typical of another sport, they do not have muscle endurance at all. For example, we see soccer players who, for as much as they run around, surprisingly get winded easily, and don’t have jumping ability.

Patch: Aside from being careful not to specialize in any one sport too early and over train, what other things should parents do to develop good athleticism?

Coach Wong: Let them play outside! Let them climb, jump, and run. When we were a kid, that’s what we did; our kids don’t get that as much today. Climbing trees builds upper body strength, for example; jumping down from trees and fences built our deceleration movements.

Unstructured play is important too. For every 60 minutes of structured play, kids should also have 2 hours of unstructured playtime as well.

Nutrition is also essential. I see kids come in to train with chocolate Frappucinos, and root beer—that’s what they are bringing with them to drink when we have our water breaks. No child, younger than high school, needs Gatorade or PowerAde—there is nothing that they do, for an adequately sustained length of time that necessitates that stuff. Feed them water and real foods.

Red Zone Training is at 2411-I Old Crow Canyon Rd., in San Ramon, next to Diablo Gymnastics, and near Splash Swim School. For more information, call (925) 954-5050, or visit their  website.


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