The stands are packed with eager fans wearing their team colors.

Players are in the field with uniforms recently washed and pressed, gloves hanging from their wrists, new cleats kicking dirt in front of them. Bases are loaded, two outs. The hitter steps to the plate and responds with a mighty swing that would make Casey flinch.


The ball rolls at a brisk pace toward the team's "best" player, who only needs to field the ball and step on the base to finish the game, but the ball rolls into right field with no sign of Kyle, the first baseman.

This isn't Bill Buckner, nor is it the World Series. It's Little League T-ball, and as so often happens in Carroll County, a hot air balloon floats by catching the attention of the 5-year old "star" and several of his teammates. Suddenly, the "moment" has just been put into perspective for all of us.


But, at 5 years old, should Kyle even be playing an organized sport?

When is it too young to start playing team sports?

Many youth sports leagues and eager parents are encouraging players to start at much younger ages, dramatically changing the sports landscape by promoting players into fundamental skills clinics shortly after they leave their diapers behind (pun intended). Some programs for "Soccer Tots" and gymnastics accept players from 18 months old, albeit in a parent-child co-participation environment.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a player be at least 6 before they begin to participate in organized sports, mostly because the "basic motor skills such as throwing, catching, kicking and hitting a ball do not develop sooner simply as a result of introducing them to children at an earlier age."

They recommend that a preschooler get a minimum of two hours of physical activity per day, one hour structured and one unstructured, to get the proper balance of exercise into her daily habits.

The injury factor is not an issue for players at this age. Most of the repetitive usage injuries don't begin to show themselves until these athletes reach middle school age, if at all. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that in boys, less than 5 percent of accidental injuries that ended up in emergency rooms were a result of team sports participation.

In girls, the number was even lower, at 1 percent.

I'm a believer that as long as the involvement in any activity, whether sports or other recreational activities, remains FUN for the participants, then it can't be a bad thing to encourage your child to "stay in the game."

As long as we recognize the unique characteristics of a player at this age and create an environment that continues to encourage the development of motor skills and create self-confidence in each player, but most importantly let them have fun while laying the foundation for a lifetime of physical fitness, the benefits will far outweigh the negatives.

Playing games that encourage participation from all players, games designed to teach and reinforce the desired skill, games centered around movement and fun, can all lay the foundation for developing an interest in the game that could last throughout the player's adolescence and into adulthood.

When an 8-year-old learns to share, to play fair, to work as a team and to respect the adults in leadership positions, it gives them a head start toward becoming a better citizen and a healthier person.

I watched my kids and many of their teammates and friends grow up playing multiple sports over the last 20 years and watched hundreds of players from across the county start their sports "careers" at a young age, in soccer, basketball, baseball, rugby, football, and lacrosse.


Some of them went on to play at the college level and many of our county's athletes had very successful personal and team accomplishments. Some hoisted national championship trophies and Player of the Year awards, while others even made it to play at the professional level and earned a paycheck for playing their respective sports.

Most of our young athletes stopped in or after high school, or at the recreation leagues, when they make a decision to pursue other interests. These are the young athletes who are now graduating from college and moving on to graduate school or beginning their real careers.

I'm confident that some of the lessons the game taught all of these players — ones that continued on and others that stopped playing — helped them to become successful students and helped prepare them for life in the "real world."

Encouraging a player at this age to participate can help him keep the proper perspective on sports' place in his life. When a local coach recently approached his 6-year-old soccer player to tell him he was having a good game, the player looked up and said, "I'm awesome, aren't I?"

You can't argue with the truth.


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