Many parents dream of athletic glory for their children even before they can walk. But is it ever too early to start them in sports, and are there any sports you should avoid?
It’s not hard to find a whole market of products aimed at budding athletes as young as 1 year of age. For example, social media is full of cute clips of young toddlers showing off their athletic prowess.
While playing games and exercise is certainly beneficial for healthy toddlers, the concept of a sport—with specific rules and roles—is something children that young will not readily grasp. Throwing a ball into a hoop is great exercise to help children grow and improve coordination, but more importantly, it’s just fun and healthy.
On the other hand, mastering a sport requires endless repetitions to develop “muscle memory,” in which the muscle involved can perform an action without conscious thought. For toddlers, this level of concentration is impossible to achieve, and there is no proof that training this early improves athletic performance later on.
It can even be harmful. Pediatricians have voiced concerns that focusing on a sport during the toddler years increases the risk of repetitive stress injury. This occurs when an activity becomes too intense or too frequent in a short period of time.
Focusing on intense, specialized, and repetitive training causes tissue to break down, which can cause stress fractures, tendinitis, bursitis, and bone cartilage injuries.
These injuries are far less common when children engage in free play versus sport specialization at a young age. Running, tumbling, swimming, throwing, and catching are all fun sports-related activities most children can enjoy.
Soccer is a good option. The activity involves running and kicking, tailor-made activity for any toddler, although don’t be surprised when they decide to stop kicking the ball and run in the other direction. The point is not the sport itself but learning new skills, building their self-confidence, and developing social skills.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, March 2020
- Free, unstructured play several times a day is great for toddlers—offer a ball and let them decide how to play with it.
- Modeling good health habits by being active and playing outside with your kids is the best way to engage them in early fitness.
- Structured activities are offered as young as age 3, but don’t expect the focus or skill you would see in an older child.