Sports Gear Guidelines

What sports equipment does your young athlete really need? We tell you when to spend -- and when to skimp.

Sure, some children are all but glued to their first baseball glove or determined to wear their first uniform day and night. But these days most kids are desperate for The Next Big Thing -- the Nike Air Zoom Ultraflights, the Official NCAA Championship Volleyball, CCM's X-Ray translucent hockey helmet. Scores of parents have been overwhelmed by today's surfeit of bells and whistles. How to know when you should spend and when you should skimp? Experts offer these guidelines:

  • Only use sports gear that's suitable to a child's age and skill level. If he isn't old enough to, say, visually track an incoming ball, he shouldn't be playing with a hard baseball, says George Graham, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology and expert in children's physical education at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, PA. And never buy equipment with the idea that a child can grow into it. Sneakers, gloves, helmets, protective gear, sports rackets -- all should fit properly on the day a child is using it. If a piece of equipment is too big, too loose, or too heavy, a child could get injured.
  • Don't go overboard. "A child will likely move through different sports, especially when she's young," explains Mike May of the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association in North Palm Beach, FL. "Parents can get annoyed, even angry, if they spend a lot of money and then their child loses interest." For most equipment -- including bats, inflatable balls, rackets, gloves, and golf clubs -- May recommends buying at garage sales, going with generic brands, or borrowing. Many communities have sports-focused consignment stores filled with stuff that was used by children for a few months -- one season -- before they outgrew it. For a used-equipment store near you, check your phone book under sports. You might also find a bargain by searching on Ebay. But keep in mind that protective items such as helmets and shinguards should be bought new, since they can weaken with wear.
  • Shell out the money for shoes. This is the most important element for having fun and staying safe in sports, says May. "Don't skimp on cheap shoes if they are going to ruin your child's ability to move properly and comfortably."
  • Get multiple opinions before you buy. Talk to coaches, knowledgeable parents, and trained professionals at sporting good stores to find out which brands hold up the longest and which brands they'd stay away from.

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