When is a child ready for team sports?

Dear Mr. Dad: I’d really like my 5-year-old son to start playing baseball in the Spring, but I wonder if it’s too soon? How can I tell when to sign him up for sports? How much do I push him?

A: One of the great rites of fatherhood is passing on the love of a sport to his child. That said, my first question would be whether your son has expressed an interest in baseball. If he hasn’t, then committing him to a league may be more than he’s ready for. You might take him to watch a local high school or minor league team play a game, gauge his interest, and go from there.

You also need to consider your son’s emotional maturity. Does he listen to his teachers and pay attention? Does he accept making mistakes and receiving coaching? In other words, is he temperamentally ready to be in a sport? If the answer to those questions is yes, and your little slugger keeps asking you to pop him some fly balls, he might be ready for the fun and learning that comes with more structured play. Notice I didn’t say “competition.” At this age, any program your son is involved in should emphasize an appreciation and understanding of the game, building and developing basic skills, and the importance of making an effort and having fun.

When you find a program that emphasizes learning and enjoyment, you’ll want to make sure that you, the coach, and your son all have those same expectations. Although we’d all like to be the parent of the kid who makes the game winning catch, we may just as easily be the parent of the kid who’s in the outfield picking dandelions.

You’ll also want to find a program that meets your needs and schedule. If your son is in an all-day kindergarten, having two practices during the week and a game every weekend may be overwhelming—and could end up driving him away from baseball instead of piquing his interest. A once-a-week team will be a less-stressful way to ease him into it. So start by making a few calls to your local YMCA, Park and Rec department, or Boys and Girls Club.

One of the most important things you can do when introducing a child to sports is to keep your expectations reasonable. You may, for example, have dreams of seeing your son on a Wheaties box and having his product endorsements support you in your old age. But even if he seems excited to be playing, he may want to stay home if going to a game means missing the newest episode of Sponge Bob. And be patient. Your son, even if he turns out to be a gifted athlete, won’t have the depth perception and hand-eye coordination to catch a fly ball or hit one into the bleachers until he’s at least nine or ten. Expecting too much from him will frustrate everyone concerned.

It’s also important for you to let the coach be the coach and you be the dad. On the sidelines. Your son will learn a tremendous amount about sportsmanship by watching how you behave. The coach’s job (at this point) is to teach him the skills he needs to develop—and to remind him to pay attention even if nothing seems to be happening. Your job (at this point) is to ask your son how the game went, and whether he’d like a snack. That’s about it—no correcting, no advising. If he wants to talk or needs help, of course you listen, and if he wants to practice with you, go right ahead. But your main job is to make sure he knows that whether he’s the next A-Rod or the next Goofy, on your scorecard, he’s terrific.