Youth sports offer a host of emotional and physical benefits, from helping kids stay active to building self-esteem and learning to work with others. But knowing which sport is best for your child often depends on your youngster's personality, as well as the time and money you're willing to invest in a particular activity.

Determine readiness. Before the age of six or seven, many kids are still developing gross motor skills like running, kicking, jumping and catching. They're also still learning social skills like sharing, taking turns and losing/winning games gracefully. Rather than having them play organized sports in their early years, experts recommend they explore different activities, like kicking a ball around, playing at the playground and taking swim or gymnastic lessons.

Aim for fun. Many parents naturally gravitate toward introducing their kids to the sports they enjoyed as children. While this is a good place to start, your child may not end up sharing your enthusiasm and you may go through several sports before you find one that's the right fit for your child.

"We really need to look at what our kids do to have fun. If they're having fun, they'll stay in the sport longer. They won't burn out," says Randy Goldstein, D.O., a board certified pediatrician who specializes in youth sports medicine. "If they're having fun, they're more likely to make goals that are to their highest potential."

Pros of team sports. Any sport your child participates in should help them develop strength, balance and coordination, and provide them with an opportunity to push themselves in a healthy, positive environment.

"In a team sport, the kids have to work together towards a common goal and take instruction from a coach who isn't necessarily a parent," Goldstein says. "This is important to learning how to be around future teachers, future bosses and future leaders."

Meredith Dickinson says her son Tyler, 14, who plays football, baseball and basketball, thrives in a team atmosphere. He is motivated to improve by playing alongside more talented teammates.

"He works hard to be better. He may not be the best on the field, but he works hard to support his teammates," Dickinson says.

Every child progresses at his or her own speed. Encourage your young athlete toward his personal goals with positive, calm support. And celebrate his personal accomplishments along the way.

"Watch for individual progress, not what your child's teammates are doing. Your child may seem behind or ahead of the others. This can change like the weather," Goldstein says. "It takes one or two seasons to judge improvement and success - not one or two competitions."

The downside? Much like individual sports, team sports like baseball and soccer have become more year round in nature. Although this approach can help the team and individual players grow stronger and more skilled over time, families may find that the sport is more of a time and money commitment than they'd bargained for.

Pros of individual sports. Much of the success in individual sports like tennis, dance, swimming and gymnastics depends on the motivation of the particular athlete. Athletes who excel at individual sports find satisfaction in pushing themselves to achieve a personal goal rather than relying on the team to help them get there.

Dickinson says this is true for her daughter Lauren, 11, who swims.

"Swimming is a good fit for her because it is her and the clock," Dickinson says. "She doesn't want to have the win or loss depend on teammates."

While your child might prefer an individual sport, that doesn't mean she has to sacrifice the support of a team.

"Even individual sports have the camaraderie or the partnership of a team," Goldstein says, who works with premier-level gymnasts. "They travel together and learn to become partners and accomplish individual goals, but as a team."

The downside? Not all kids feel drawn to the spotlight during a performance or sporting event. And some kids may put undue pressure on themselves to reach personal goals, causing the negatives to outweigh the positives. Some parents also find it difficult watching their youngsters navigate the pressures of a sport on their own.

"As a parent, it's tough to watch your nine-year-old play in her first tennis tournament where she's responsible for scoring, pace of the game, calling shots and settling disputes," says Jackie Kindred. "A great experience for her, but unnerving for a parent."

Kindred's daughter Rose, now 12, has since turned her attention to club volleyball, but she feels that both team and individual sports have benefited her daughter's personal growth.

"As a parent, I'm glad she did both. It's impossible for me to say one is better than another. It depends on the kids, the coaches and the sport," Kindred says. "But I do think the exposure to both is crucial."

Is Your Child Ready for Organized Sports?

Consult with your pediatrician before enrolling your child in a sport and discuss questions like:

Is your child ready and able to ...

  • Listen to adults other than Mom or Dad?

  • Play with others, and when necessary, wait in line to take his or her turn?

  • Be away from Mom or Dad?

  • Understand how to play safely with the equipment involved in the chosen sport?

  • Physically play the sport? (physical readiness includes balance, body awareness and awareness of the space around him or her to learn beginning sports skills such as running, jumping, safe landing and change-in-direction techniques.)

Source: Dr. Randy Goldstein

Benefits of Organized Sports for Kids

  • Enhance critical thinking/problem-solving skills

  • Increase social interaction/cooperation with peers

  • Improve concentration, attention and behavior

  • Reduce incidence of depression and anxiety

  • Foster self-esteem, goal-setting and leadership skills

  • Develop habits that will make them more likely to be active adults

Source: The Aspen Institute Project Play

Quiz: What is the top team sport for children ages 6 to 17?

  1. Basketball

  2. Outdoor soccer

  3. Baseball

  4. Court volleyball

  5. Touch football

Answer: A. Basketball, followed by baseball, outdoor soccer, touch football and court volleyball

Source: NYU Child Study Center


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Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband are the parents of two active boys who have participated in both team and individual sports. She is the author of "Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World."