Taking the Pressure out of Sports

Experts weigh in on what parents can do to make sports safe and fun for young athletes.

Entering the Sports Maze

Child sports

Dawna Cobb of Baltimore vividly recalls the summer that her kids' sports became too much. It was in 2000, when she listened as her two sons asked if they could join a travel baseball team. Cobb and her husband, Paul Hulleberg, decided to let the boys have their way, although Anders and Lucas, then 11 and 8, were already playing in a recreational baseball league and on the school lacrosse team. The parents wondered: Maybe three team commitments wouldn't be much more hectic than two?

Looking back, Cobb can laugh. Within weeks the family was near exhaustion. "Our children love sports and so do we. But it got to be ridiculous," she recalls. One especially absurd experience stands out: driving approximately 25 miles on a rainy day to one son's travel-team game, returning home to change into dry clothes, then going back to watch her other son in another game. In all, the boys played 68 games in roughly four months.

Welcome to youth sports in the 21st century. The freckled faces and knobby knees you remember from your days rounding the bases still dot the sports landscape, but just about everything else has changed. Today's athletes start earlier than ever, with kids as young as 2 or 3 taking sports lessons and joining tot leagues by age 5. About 26.1 million children -- more than half of all 6- to 17-year-olds -- suit up with an organized sports team, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in North Palm Beach, FL.

For parents, there's pressure to get their kids involved in sports at young ages but also confusion about how much is too much and how soon is too soon. Most children can begin playing sports as young as age 5 and competing around age 8, says John Engh, vice president of youth development at the National Alliance for Youth Sports in West Palm Beach, FL. There are a few Tiger Woods-esque children who are ready and willing to compete at age 3, but that's rare, he adds. Still, the lure, however unrealistic, of turning children into pros has some families rushing to enter the sports maze.

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