Suit Up for Soccer

The whats, whens, and hows of getting started in soccer.

Benefits of Soccer

More than 18 million children participate in soccer leagues and programs each year, making it the most popular and fastest-growing youth sport in the United States today, according to the United States Youth Soccer Association (USYSA). Why is it so popular? Here are three reasons:

1. It's easy to learn. Children don't need to be taught to run or kick a ball (okay, running and kicking in the right direction does take some work), and the object of knocking the ball through a goal is simple to grasp.

2. It doesn't discriminate. Boys and girls of all shapes and sizes can play.

3. It's an excellent form of exercise. Its continuous action helps kids build stamina, strengthen their heart and muscles, and develop coordination, says David T. Bernhardt, MD, FAAP, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Soccer can also help keep kids fit and trim -- an important benefit now that one in every five children in America is overweight. Studies show that children who play organized sports, such as soccer, at an early age are more likely than nonathletes to adopt healthy habits that stick for life.

Next: When to Start

When to Start

Before signing a child up for soccer, parents should ask themselves whether their child is physically ready to play. Children who haven't developed the coordination to kick the ball to a teammate, for example, may get so frustrated that they'll want to hang up their cleats forever. Most experts believe that parents should wait until their kids are at least 5 or 6 years old before enrolling them in a league.

David Carr, assistant professor and coordinator of sports sciences at Ohio University, in Athens, and a national coaching director for the United States Soccer Federation, has found that preschoolers and many kindergartners have difficulty learning soccer in a team setting and often become upset when a coach corrects them.

Because children develop at different rates, Carr encourages parents to ask themselves the following questions:

1. Does my child prefer to play alone rather than with a playmate?

2. Does he have problems taking turns and remaining patient?

3. Is he less physically coordinated than other children his age?

4. Does he get upset when an adult corrects him?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, Carr advises that you wait a year or two before enrolling your child in an organized soccer league.

Joining a League

If you believe your child is physically and socially ready to play organized soccer, and she shows a genuine interest in the sport, you'll need to locate a program in your area. Start by contacting:

  • Your local parks and recreation department
  • Your school district
  • The local YMCA
  • Other soccer moms and dads

Once you find a program you like, you're ready to outfit your aspiring player. Unlike other sports, soccer doesn't require much equipment. Most leagues include a team T-shirt as part of the registration fee, leaving parents to purchase only a few moderately priced items:

  • A pair of cleats (younger kids can wear basketball or tennis sneakers)
  • Shorts
  • Long athletic socks
  • Shin guards

Although not mandatory, American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids wear mouth guards and sports goggles with polycarbonate lenses during play to prevent injuries to the mouth and eyes.

Next: Soccer by Age

Soccer by Age

League formats differ by community, but many programs follow USYSA-sanctioned guidelines, which divide teams by age.

Under age 6

  • The emphasis is on fun and camaraderie.
  • Games are played using the "small-sided" soccer format, which means that coed teams of three players compete on a "shortened" field, which is about a quarter the size of a regulation field.
  • The ball and goals are also smaller, and there are no goalkeepers.
  • Games are short -- about 32 minutes long.
  • Teams usually practice once or twice a week for about 45 minutes.

Ages 6 to 8

  • Children are taught the basics of soccer, such as dribbling, passing, and shooting.
  • Games, which are generally 40 minutes in length, are still played on shortened fields with small goals and no goalies.
  • Teams usually consist of four players.
  • Twice-weekly team practices shouldn't exceed an hour, and players should switch skill-building exercises every five minutes.

Ages 8 to 10

  • Players hone their ball-handling, passing, and shooting skills.
  • Games are played on a larger field with squads of between 8 and 11 players, which may include goalkeepers.
  • The games are longer.
  • Practices let players focus for longer periods on skill-building drills.

Ages 10 and up

  • Matches are played on full-size fields with regulation balls and goals.
  • Teams consist of 11 players, including a goalkeeper.
  • Squads usually practice two to three times a week for about 90 minutes.

Additional reporting by Michael McNamee

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns.

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