National Alliance for Youth Sports: Be Smart

Starting Kids Out Right in Sports

By Fred Engh

magine handing a 6-year-old a copy of War and Peace and watching the look in their eyes when you tell them to begin reading it.

Or how about plopping a 5-year-old on a bike without training wheels? Check out their reaction when you encourage them to start pedaling by themselves.

Really ridiculous scenarios? You bet.

And even more disastrous results.

Obviously, a child still learning basic words has no chance of getting past the first sentence of a classic novel, and one who has never been on a bike before won't get far at all before tipping, crashing and, of course, crying.

So, when it comes to youth sports, why do we continually adopt the basic mindset of the above and set children up for automatic failure that crushes their confidence and sabotages their self-esteem?

This is what happens in many communities all across the country: We throw kids a colorful uniform, hand them some equipment, and that's pretty much their welcome to this wonderful world we call organized youth sports.

Toss in scoreboards, standings and all-star teams, and it's easy to see why the fun for many kids fizzles quicker than being told they need shots at the doctor's office.

Think about what happens in youth baseball and softball, for example.

Many programs use regulation hard balls for the kids at the youngest age levels, so do the math: An uncoordinated child combined with a hard baseball bouncing off their shin when they're unable to field a grounder cleanly or worse, conking them on the head when they're trying to corral a fly ball, generally results in a lot of pain and frustration, as well as increases the likelihood that the child will want to quit the sport for good.

And who can really blame them?

Things can't get much worse than that when you figure that early childhood experiences in youth sports are supposed to be about fun and learning—while in an ultra safe environment.

After all, children's memories of their first season in T-ball are supposed to be happy ones, not ones that have them tossing and turning at night and looking to give up on the sport before they've even had a chance to really learn what it's all about.

It's time recreation agencies revamp their thinking on how they handle their programming aimed at the younger sets as well as their teaching approach with these highly impressionable youngsters.

Thankfully, an ever-increasing number of agencies have been doing something about this troubling aspect of youth sports, and if you're not yet, you should be, too.

Let me explain.

In the early '90s our organization, the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), conducted a study with more than 1,000 youngsters in the 6- to 8-year-old range. We tested them on their basic motor skills. And guess what? An eye-popping 40 percent of them did not even make the minimum requirement to feel successful playing sports.

So you can only imagine how many children are being set up for miserable experiences the first time they step on a field, court or rink and are unable to perform basic skills as well as some of their teammates.

Think about it. That's a lot of children who are walking away from their first hour in the youth sports world frustrated, disappointed and, sadly, embarrassed.

Regardless of whether the activity we're talking about is art, drama or sports, they all require some sort of basic skills in order to derive any satisfaction out of participating.

We can't just expect kids to show up ready to play.

In the early '90s some makers of the Koosh products paid me a visit. It was interesting to learn that the creator of the Koosh Ball came up with the idea after playing catch with his daughter because every time she missed the ball and it hit her it hurt, and she wanted to stop playing.

He felt that the Koosh Ball would be a great way to help kids learn how to catch, because it took the fear factor away, plus misses weren't accompanied by pain.

That conversation led NAYS to create the Start Smart Sports Development Program. In a nutshell, the program teaches kids ages 3 to 5 basic motor skills and sport skills using fun, non-threatening, colorful products to teach kids the basic skills that sports require.

One of the really cool aspects of the program is that it requires parents to participate with their child every throw, step and kick of the way. It's a winning situation for everyone. The kids learn the key skills that help them get off on the right foot in sports; parents pick up some great insight on learning their roles and responsibilities for making their child's sports experience fun and safe; and administrators benefit because they have a program full of happy children who can't wait to get to the facility to participate.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Last year alone more than 1,000 Start Smart programs were run by nearly 400 recreation agencies across the country. And over the years the countries that have run Start Smart programs reads like a United Nations roll call: Italy, Spain, Belgium, Korea, Germany, South Africa and Mexico, among others.

We want every child's first venture into organized sports to be drenched in fun so they can't wait to keep coming back again and again. That begins building a deep-rooted love of sports and lays the foundation for a lifetime of healthy activity.

That's what it's all about.

Children everywhere are counting on us to make it happen.


Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, which has been America's leading advocate for safe and positive sports since 1981. He also is the author of "Why Johnny Hates Sports." For more information, visit

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