PE & Competitive Sport

Occasionally I am asked ’At what age should children specialize in sports?’ or ‘At what age should children play competitive sports?’ As a PE department we have put together this post outlining the current research in this area along with our own thoughts based on our experiences with the many wonderful children who, at times, have taught us as much as we might have taught them!

Our current PE curriculum and after school activity programs (AFAC and ATAC) have been designed and aligned with what the experts (child psychologists, sports psychologists, pediatricians, and professional coaches and PE teachers) understand about child growth and development. This includes the physical, cognitive, social and emotional development in children. If you are new to this topic you may find some of the research appears to be counterintuitive – for example different studies conducted around the world report that the more successful Olympic sportsmen and women tended to specialize after the age of 15.

Our goal at ISM in our PE and sports programs (ATAC and AFAC) is to develop physical literacy and sports skills in students so that they have the confidence and competency to successfully participate in a variety of sports and other physical activities throughout their lifetime. Our focus is also to develop the school wide dispositions of being ethical, reflective, lifelong learners and have the ability to develop and maintain interconnectedness with others.

Experts agree that physical literacy should be developed prior to the adolescent growth spurt. These fundamentals skills are the ABC’s of athleticism (agility, balance and coordination).  In ES PE we place a heavy focus on developing the eleven fundamental motor skills along with units on fitness, sportsmanship, games and game sense.

There have been several studies of talented kids (not only in sports, but also in music, the arts etc)  and many of these studies have concluded that there are ‘stages’ of talent development.  The three stages are identified as:

  • The Early Years (called the ‘Romance’ or ‘Sampling’ phase) ages 6-13 where kids develop a love for the activity, feel free to explore and have fun in the activity, are encouraged by those around them and ultimately find success in the activity. These are the ‘skill hungry’ years when children should be encouraged to play as many sports as they can to develop a wide range of motor abilities. The focus is on developing sports skills, teamwork, and having fun, not winning or competitive play.  Pick-up games and just ‘playing for fun’ should be encouraged. The key at this vulnerable stage is to keep them playing the sports they enjoy. Remember that seventy percent of children drop out of organized sports by the age of 13. This is often attributed to burn out with children that specialize or compete too early. There is an insightful book called ‘The Hurried Child’ by David Elkind Ph.D., which I recommend reading. Our counselors at ISM have a copy of this book.

There are many well documented benefits of playing multiple sports throughout childhood and adolescence. One of these benefits is that a child is more likely to find a sport that is a better fit than those who specialize too early. Specializing too early also results in overuse injuries. Last year the medical journal “Pediatrics” examined the problem of overuse and burnout injuries. Especially among young soccer players, there has been an alarming rise in injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament, the main ligament that stabilizes the keen joint – a particular concern because repair involves drilling into a growth plate, an area of developing tissue at the end of the leg bone.  The solution is a simple one, play multiple sports throughout elementary and middle school.

  • The Middle Years (labeled the ‘precision’ or ‘technical’ phase) Beginning to specialize. Ages 13-15 where an experienced coach or teacher begins imparting the skills of the activity and the focus is on mastery and skill development of a preferred sport. This choice should not preclude the child also playing other sports.
  • The Later Years  (the ‘Integration’ or ‘Mature’ Phase ) Investing Ages 15+  where a master teacher or coach is involved, where a great deal of time is dedicated to practice, and the focus becomes optimal performance. In this stage, a significant amount of time is dedicated to the activity.


The Coaching Association of Canada recommends that children can begin to participate in suitably designed competitive sport after the age of about 11, which is around the beginning of Middle School.

The position of the new technical director of the Football Federation of Australia is to eliminate all competitive matches for kids under the age of 14.

Marianne Engle, PH.D., sports psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at the NYU Child Study Center recommend children younger than 5 years of age should be involved in exploration and simple motor activities. For young children, just keep them moving and having fun, and don’t focus on organized games. For school age children, focus on developing skills, teamwork and trying out different sports. Avoid early specialization and too much game time. Eager fun loving children can turn off sports when the competition feels too heavy too early.

The position of the American Academy of Pediatrics on specialization is the following “Children involved in sports should be encouraged to playing a variety of different activities and develop a wide range of skills” They also found that “Those who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after reaching the age of puberty tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries, and adhere to sports playing longer than those who specialize early.

When considering sports participation we need to take into account the developmental age as well as the chronological age of a child before competing. Paulo David, author of Human Rights in Youth Sport: A Critical Review of Children’s Rights in Competitive Sports, found that children don’t always understand the concept of competition until around age seven. Children under nine may be incapable of differentiating between the concept of effort and that of ability. This means that they believe winning is achieved by how hard they try and that losing means they did not trying hard enough. Sports knowledge development in children at a young age is essential. In the elementary grades at ISM children do several games units where they learn that games have rules, boundaries, and a safety and sportsmanship element so that we can all enjoy playing. There is little or no emphasis on wins or losses which can often lead to emotional distress and long term refusal to be involved in competitive sports. Sports are designed to improve a child’s self-concept in the elementary years.

The many readily available research articles serve to guide our sports programs here at ISM and we strongly encourage children to play a variety of sports throughout their school years. We begin competitive sports in Middle School based on the recommendations of sport psychologists and child psychologists. We run very few yearlong sports so that we can provide children with opportunities to play multiple sports and avoid burnout and overuse injuries.

I believe the success of our current program is often seen in our three season, medal winning, Varsity and Junior Varsity athletes here at ISM. We also see the joy of physical activity that all our ES students share with us on a regular basis. You can find more details of the PE units taught, and sports on offer on the ATAC and AFAC blogs and the PE Teachers blogs.

Resources and Further Reading.

Ready or Not. At what age are children prepared to deal with competition?

Children and Competition

NYU Child Study Center Giving Children Back Their Childhood. Sports and Kids: Pathway to healthy development or to unhealthy competition? An Interview with Marianne Engle, Ph.D., sports psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at the NYU Child Study Center.

Should My Child Specialize? Published on The Educated Sports Parent

Kids Who Specialize in One Sport May Have Higher Injury Risk. Loyola University Health System Study.

Kids’ sport should not just be about winning. (

For Kids, One Sport or Many? By Tara Parker-Pope

Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes. From the American Academy of Pediatrics. Joel S. Brenner, MD, MPH, and the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.

Why Most Kids Quit Sports. By Carleton Kendrick Ed.M., LCSW

One-Sport Wonders: Should Your Child Specialize in a Single Sport? By Sue Marquette Poremba.

The Art of Balance: Specialization & Youth Sports Athletes

Are Competitive Sports Good For Children? By Rachel Nall

At What Age Should My Child Specialize in a Specific Sport? By Mary Ann Dove Performance Coach

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