Many of us have cherished childhood memories of playing sports either on a team or in neighborhood pick-up games. No doubt most of today’s Mt. Lebanon kids will also recall preschool and early elementary school sports experiences. Mt. Lebanon Recreation Department, along with a host of youth-sports associations, offer children as young as 4 the chance to play sports for fun—and many of those children continue to play in middle and high school, where the competition gets serious.
Pat Cannon, Mt. Lebanon’s recreation program manager, oversees the rec department’s youth sports programs, which is where many parents introduce their children to playing sports. “If you just drive through the community, you can see how active it is at any time,” says Cannon. “Just drive past the ballfields or tennis courts. They’ll be filled.”
Managing youth sports is a massive undertaking for the rec department. Spring soccer for preschoolers and kindergarteners draws about 400 children. Fall soccer, which extends from preschool through second grade, regularly has more than 700 registered players. This past winter, 984 children in grades one through eight, played basketball.
“If you think about that,” Cannon says, “it’s something like 93 different teams. Some teams have two or three [volunteer]coaches. I bet I had over 150 coaches getting [security] clearances.”
Youth sports also benefit from a number of independent associations, each of which assembles teams and leagues. Myriad programs are a plus for a community but also create uncertainty for some parents: When is your child ready to play team sports? Which sports are best to start with? And what if your child doesn’t like playing as much as you thought he/she would?
The answers aren’t as obvious or concrete as you might think, when you consider that preschool-aged children develop mentally, physically and emotionally at different rates. “It depends on the child, but most children are cognitively prepared to play on a team by age five,” says Dr. Elizabeth Reitz, a child psychologist with an office on Cedar Boulevard. “Some kids are ready sooner, and some kids may not be ready yet.”
It’s perfectly normal for a pre-school-aged child, especially one who is shy, to feel uncomfortable in a team-sports environment, and if your child seems uninterested, there’s no harm done in waiting it out and trying again next year, she says. On the other hand, if a child seems emotionally ready, Reitz feels playing sports is a good way for a child to develop and refine certain skills —physical abilities like kicking and catching, as well as developmental skills such as practicing without getting frustrated and the ability to stand still and listen to instructions from a coach.
“But you also want to make sure that your child is showing some inclination that they’re ready to pay attention and start practicing these motor skills,” she adds.
Mt. Lebanon High School Athletic Director John Grogan, who also has also raised three kids (the youngest is now in eighth grade), agrees with Reitz that getting kids involved in team sports at a young age is a good thing, provided they seem ready. He cites confidence, spatial awareness and body movement as benefits. “And, as a parent, it gives you the opportunity to teach your kids about resiliency and how to handle it when things don’t go your way,” he adds.
As for deciding which and how many sports your child should play, there’s no right answer. What is most important, the experts say, is that young children enjoy the sports they’re playing. And if it’s a sport Mom or Dad played as a child or teen and still enjoys, all the better, because families can play and practice together, Reitz says. Strengthening a relationship with a parent is a happy byproduct of playing a sport the whole family can play, she adds.
But first and foremost the sport should benefit the child. “What you want to look for is an interest on their end—that it’s not coming from the parents,” Reitz says. “It’s not what we think they should be doing, but what they want to be doing.”
“It needs to be about what [the child] enjoys and what activities they want to be involved with,” Grogan agrees, “more so than what you may want or what you remember from your childhood.”
Reitz and Grogan urge parents not to fret over how good their children are at sports compared to friends or teammates. “A lot of parents worry their kids will not keep up with their peers, but there is a lot of physical development that goes on between the ages of 3 and 6,” Reitz says. “The exact year that a child starts playing a sport will not dictate how successful they’ll be playing that sport. It’s more important that they’re developmentally—emotionally, socially, cognitively—ready to begin playing.”
Grogan often sees parents who take a sport too seriously. He suggests that the conversation on the car ride home from a game shouldn’t involve what happened on the field but instead should be about the simple joys of being with teammates. “At 4, 5 or 6 years old, it’s all about getting out and having fun,” he says. “Heck, you’re trying to get the kids to run in the right direction at that point.”
Trying out a handful of sports over several years to find the one that clicks can be a good strategy, Grogan says: “My advice is to stress participation and fun and allow them to experience a lot of different sports, so that they ultimately can find what they really enjoy doing.”
Reitz cautions, however, about enrolling a child in too many sports too soon. “My general stance is that the value of free time and play is underestimated in our society,” she says. “Enrolling kids in more does not mean they will have a better cognitive or physical outcome.”
Still, with so many youth-sports programs spread out over four seasons, it’s possible for a Mt. Lebanon child to sample several sports without playing more than one or two at a time. Soccer is the first sport kids ages 4 and up can play through the rec department, with the “Little Sluggers” baseball program following soon after. Before long, they can try their hands at basketball, hockey, skating and tennis. The programs don’t keep score or standings for the first few years, instead offering loosely organized games designed to enhance the kids’ enjoyment of the sport.
“We just encourage experimentation with the sport,” Cannon says. “We want them to be in a non-competitive environment. The rules? When they’re 4 and 5 they’re not going to grasp all of that stuff, so rules just aren’t as important.”
Keeping the whole slate of rec department programs running smoothly is a challenge, but Cannon believes youth sports contribute to a vibrant active community. “It’s part of our mission to offer these opportunities for our kids,” he says—“to offer a wide variety of activities and have them engaged. To enrich their lives.”