Children younger than six should not play competitive sport, experts say

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

While parents who enrol their kids into sports programs when they're not long out of nappies may have good intentions, a new Australian study suggests that pushing them to participate too soon could do more harm than good.

The research, which was published in BMC Public Health, suggests that rather than sending kids onto the field at the tender age of four or five, parents should wait until their children are at least six, to ensure they don't lose interest and drop out in years to come.

"Very young children should be having fun and developing basic motor skills playing unorganised sport," said lead author Associate Professor Rochelle Eime of Victoria University, adding that little ones are likely to become bored before they're ready for club competition at around eight, either swapping activities or dropping sport altogether.

Using Australian data from Sport and Recreation Spatial, Dr Eime and her team looked at participation records from almost 14,000 girls aged four to ten years, over a four year period. All girls participated in a modified sports program for one year and were tracked thereafter.

"These programs are modified to match the developmental capacity of children," they note, "and are aimed at development of fundamental motor skills and sport-specific skills, rather than competition."

And the results were surprising.

While the majority of girls (59 per cent) transitioned from the modified sports program into junior club competition, whether or not they continued playing depended on the age they started. Of those who began at age four or five, 60 per cent dropped out within four years. In contrast, only 30 per cent of those who commenced between the ages of seven to nine stopped participating.

"Those who commenced at age six and above were significantly more likely to transition than four year olds," the authors note of their findings, adding that the likelihood of transitioning increased from age six to a peak at age nine, before declining at ten years old.

So what's behind the drop-out rate of early adopters? According to the authors, boredom is one key reason.

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"It has been suggested that many of the very young children are not going to be motivated to participate in the same modified sport program for four to five years before they are eligible to play club competition at around the age of eight years," they note. "They are likely to become bored and either sample another sport or drop out of sport all together."

And pushy parents keen to give their kids a competitive edge over their peers may well be to blame.

As such, the authors' recommendations are clear. "In order to maximise continued participation, sport policy and strategic developments should consider the possibility that targeting the very young is not the optimum recruitment strategy for fostering continued sport participation."

Parent educator and child behaviour expert Martine Oglethorpe agrees. "Starting kids in organised sport too early sometimes has the effect of putting them off continuing team sports when the enjoyment factor may be taken away, particularly when they start so young the sports are often chosen by the parents and not always the pursuits that their individual children are more naturally suited to or interested in," she says.

"We certainly want our aim to be retaining young people in sports throughout adolescents if possible, and so young children should spend that pre school time engaging in a range of activities, where they can still be developing physical skills but in a way that maintains the fun and enjoyment rather than a focus on rules and achievement."