Starting 3-Year-Olds in Organized Sports? Let’s Get Real

soccer ball

Generally speaking, most parents can’t wait to get their young children into activities. They want to do something that’s out of the house or outdoors. They’re anxious to find out what their child’s talents might be and signing them up for a team seems like a good first step in that direction.

But, there are a few things to consider before paying that enrollment fee and piling everyone in the car.

First, be sure the activity is specifically geared to 3 to 5-year-olds. Some are more for 5’s and 6’s. In other words, all pee wee soccer teams are not what parents might expect. They need to take the time to watch a session and observe the set-up and coaching. Is it highly structured and regimented, with the emphasis on performance and winning? Or, is it more like fun running games while learning some very basic skills?

Parents should remember that an active 3-year-old is not going to look like any kind of athlete. He is typically a bundle of unorganized energy, with an amazing inability to follow directions, pay attention, or listen.

Although my middle son eventually became a varsity soccer player, some of the time during his first years on the field as a preschooler were spent sitting down at will, looking for stuff in the grass, or practicing somersaults. Once, when he was goalie, I looked down field and saw him sitting on top of the goal, smiling, waving to me, and swinging his legs. None of this surprised or fazed me. It was all developmentally appropriate behavior and worthy of a good chuckle. I would, however, notice other parents reacting quite differently when their children weren’t doing as they were told or seemed distracted. They were humiliated and apologetic, neither of which they needed to be, if they had some realistic expectations of their preschoolers.

sit on ball

Just the timing of the game or practice could be a factor. It could be after a full day of preschool or child care when their energy and attention is spent. Then, there are children who, despite being accustomed to routines at preschool, are reluctant to participate. Some may even be fearful, particularly when being expected to do something unfamiliar in front of other people. This can produce a great deal of stress and even some tears. In these cases, parents might need to weigh the distress against any other benefits the child may be getting from participating. Let’s face it. Some children might not be ready for this and that’s OK. Really it is.


Something else that is very important is being respectful to the child. Ask him if he wants to participate in an activity. Don’t just go ahead and enroll him. If the child starts out excited and enthusiastic about something he really wants to do, there is a better chance that he will participate and enjoy it. On the other hand, the announcement of, “Surprise! You’re going to be playing soccer every Monday night!” may result in a not-so-happy surprise for the parent.

I knew my son couldn’t wait to go to soccer each week, so when my neighbor suggested I sign him up for T-Ball with her son, I figured it was great idea. The evening I broke the news will be one I’ll never forget. We were having our usual, bedtime, in the dark, end of the day chat.

“Guess what?” I asked. (I had waited all day for this!)

“What, Mom?”

“You’re going to be playing T-Ball every Wednesday night with Shane!”

He immediately jumped out of bed and stood in front of me with his hands on his hips. The light coming into the room through the slightly open door shined on his little self, in his outer space pajamas.

“Who signed me up for THAT?” There was my over-zealous mom wake-up call. Needless to say, we did not play any T-Ball that summer. Lesson learned.

play soccer

Finally, parents must remember that children’s organized sports should never be considered the same as or allowed to replace regular play. It is a good idea to let the child try out the sport with their friends in a playful way at home, without the pressure of it being formally organized by adults. This type of play should continue in between the times the child gets together with the team, too. But, parents should resist the urge to coach, instruct, or manage, but rather just let the child lead and learn about the sport in an unstructured way.

They will gain confidence, improve, and best of all… have a lot of fun!

fun soccer

One comment

Thanks for this post, Debra. There are a great many of us who firmly believe children shouldn’t be enrolled in organized sports until they’re at least 8 years old — when they’re better prepared in all domains. Most parents don’t realize that foot-eye coordination isn’t fully developed until the age of 9 or 10, that young children can’t think about two things at the same time (like dribbling and passing), and that they’re not ready to share that precious ball. Just with those few factors we’ve covered the physical, cognitive, and socia/emotional domains!

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