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Sports and the Stages of Play

Sports help children develop physical skills, get exercise, make friends, have fun, learn teamwork, learn to play fair, and improve self-esteem. It is important to remember that the attitudes and behavior taught to children in sports carry over to adult life.

Until about age 12, general athleticism nurtured with free play and multiple sports should be prioritized over sport-specific skills. Even after the age of 12, free play i.e. without interference from adults remains important.

Stage One ‘All About Play’ Ages 4-7

Before the age of 7 is a critical time for developing basic movement skills, coordination, balance, and strong bones and muscles. These accomplishments will set the foundation for future success in sports as well as health and wellness into adulthood. Nurturing a variety of activities early will also enhance brain function, creativity, social skills, and confidence.

During this phase of development children should be introduced to an assortment of movements involving unstructured sports, games, and creative free play. Some structured sports activity is beneficial as long as the majority of physical activity is child-driven. Kids do not need to be taught skills in a formal manner at this age, they should learn through discovery. Even organized practices should allow opportunities for child-driven free play.

Stage Two ‘Nurture The All-Around Athlete’ Ages 7-10 (Girls) and 8-11 (Boys)

Between the ages 7-11 is the time to nurture qualities that relate to general athleticism—such as speed, agility, balance, coordination, and mental aptitude for sports. The best approach is through multiple sports participation (both structured and unstructured), free play, and functional strength and movement training. Because studies indicate specializing in one sport too early can lead to a decline in athleticism, overuse injuries, and burnout, experts advise against athletes specializing during this critical stage of development.

Aim for exercise proficiency by the end of this phase in order to prevent injuries and for kids to begin to develop safe functional movement patterns that will translate directly to sports. Parents should encourage unstructured free play and pick-up games at home.

Stage Three 'Skill Development and Functional Strength' Ages 11-14 (Girls) and 12-15 (Boys)

Around ages 11-15, the kids who have developed general athleticism through participation in multiple sports and developed explosive speed and strength as a result of a functional training program will begin to outshine kids who have devoted all their time to skill proficiency in one particular sport. The coordination, agility, and strength that multi-sport athletes acquired in Phases One and Two will make it easier for athletes to enhance their sport specific-skills and gain functional strength in the weight room. While some athletes may begin to narrow their sports selection during this phase, it is not necessary to give up sports that they love to focus on a single sport. The majority of college and professional athletes played multiple sports during this phase of their development.

Stage Four 'Build on Sport-Specific Skills and Strength' Ages 15-18 (Girls) and 16-19 (Boys)

Around the ages 15-19, this is when children develop adult bodies. Their sports starts to resemble training and becomes more serious and the development of team skills, individual skills, and strength and conditioning all become essential for success in competitive sports. Children who intend to pursue formal athleticism who have taken a long-term approach to development, as explained in the previous phases, will have a significant chance of reaching their full athletic potential during these years.

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