By looking at the title already I am sure that most of you reading this have some views on when children should start playing sport. This could be down to your own personal experiences or those of your own children. I would like to start by saying that, although I do not have children of my own I have coached 600+ individual children so far in my coaching career and have a strong scientific knowledge base when it comes to skill acquisition of children.
What do the sports say?
If you look at various governing bodies’ LTAD (Long Term Athlete Development) models you can see when they think children should start playing their various sports. I suggest that you read these for your own sports as they are extremely interesting and break down what should be learned at what age.
When should children start playing the specific sport according to it’s LTAD (English Governing Bodies):
What these governing bodies have in common is they all think that the first stage of learning should be FUNdamentals. This is where the children learn the basics of sport and are not confined to a specific sports skill. For example they will learn things such as:
Personally I would completely agree with these governing bodies, they understand the importance of learning the FUNdamentals of sports before learning the difficult skills and tactics. A real life example of this would be children I have coached over the years who come from ‘sporty’ families. They seem to instantly pick up any sport they try and many people would say this is ‘natural talent’ but the cause is much more simple: They have a strong foundation of FUNdamental skills from playing with their parents or siblings.
What does the research say?
Before talking about the youngest and oldest age for sport it is very important to look at a growing trend within sports selection when it comes to Relative Age Effect (RAE). Children are put into age groups throughout their life and it is common knowledge that children grow rapidly both physically and mentally throughout their childhood. So there will always be drastic differences between children born at the start (September) compared to those born at the end of the academic year (August).
These children born at the end of the the year can be as much as 11 months younger than those born at the start. In a journal article discussing the difference between selection of national teams U12-U18 across europe in football they found that almost 80% of the children selected were born in the first three months of the cut off period (the oldest 25% of the group children) . A more recent research paper conducted in america studying the RAE of ice hockey players found very similar results and mentioned a very interesting fact: “A child who turns 5 years old in January will be nearly 20% older by the time a child born in December has their 5th birthday” .
The term ‘too late’ actually frustrates me when talking about sport as I feel it is never too late to start a sport. If I were to summarise the research of learning skills I would tell you that it’s not the age you start but the amount of hours put into learning that are important. As an example a study was conducted in Berlin in 1990 where they interviewed over 100 violinists and compared their age, skill and the time they spent practicing.
“All of the violinists had begun playing at roughly five years of age with similar practice times. However, at age eight, practice times began to diverge. By age twenty, the elite performers averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able performers had only 4,000 hours of practice”.
Something else which is extremely important (which I will write a separate blog post about at a later date) is what we perceive to be ‘natural talent’. These elite violinists would often be said to have raw talent or an underlying skill which others do not have but the simple truth is that they just practiced more. A fact which I love to tell people is that Mozart did not have natural talent or was he even a child prodigy but in fact he just spent more than 10,000 hours of his time learning to play music before his 19th birthday.
I will always say that there is no time that is too late to start playing sport. I would encourage children to start sport as early as possible, the more hours they train and learn the faster they will become elite performers. As the governing bodies suggest children can start at the young ages of 5/6 but they should learn FUNdamentals to give them a strong platform for sports in the future first. The next post for A Sporting Childhood will be about children who play many different sports and how these can affect their childhood.
 Helsen, W., Winckel, J., & Williams, A. (2005). The relative age effect in youth soccer across Europe. Journal of Sports Sciences, 629-636.
 Addona, V., & Yates, P. (2010). A Closer Look at the Relative Age Effect in the National Hockey League. Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, 146-151.