The Fast Green Tigers: A Preschool Soccer Experience

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When my daughter Samara was 4 years old, I signed her up for soccer.

Okay, to be entirely honest, I bribed her into signing up for soccer by promising her that she would get new shoes. You see, Samara was (well, still is) an incredible shoe addict. When most kids would cry because they could not go to a candy or toy store, my darling cherub would wail when we didn’t enter Brooks Shoes for Kids.

It should have been no surprise that Samara was less than thrilled when she discovered her new shoes were soccer cleats.   The crestfallen look when she found out that the only color in which they were available was black, quickly led her to tears.

I might have bought her hot pink sparkle shoes to calm her down. (Yeah, I am that parent.)

Samara cheered up slightly when she got to practice and was presented with a jersey. It was green, which was not pink or purple, but still an acceptable color. Besides, she had a green bow that matched the shirt perfectly. And, as she pointed out, her shirt matched the grass.

Samara and her teammates voted on a name for the team: The Fast Green Tigers. Again, not her first choice (she wanted to be The Pretty Ladybugs) but she seemed to take it in stride. That, and she was busy picking daisies in the grass of the local park that doubled as a soccer field, so I am not sure she was even listening.

So from here you might think what would happen next is that Samara found her inner athlete and turned into a star soccer player who eventually went on to earn a scholarship to a Division 1 NCAA school.

Yeah, that’s not what happened.

Instead, for eight (miserable) weeks, I took Samara to soccer practice/game and watched her and a dozen or so kids stand around, unsure exactly what they were supposed to be doing. They were baffled as to why the grown ups kept telling them to “spread out” (the kids were clearly thinking: “if you don’t go near the ball, then you aren’t playing?”) and to “pass the ball” (the kids perplexed: “why in the world would you give up the ball when you had it?”).   Unclear as to the strategy coupled with a lack of skills, the game was basically dominated weekly by the one or two kids who were simply bigger, stronger and more athletically gifted than the other kids. The rest of the kids sort of trailed along.

Except for Samara, who continued to pick flowers and practice her dancing.

My sweet girl managed to get through the entire season without actually coming in contact with the ball during a game. In fact, a notoriously slow eater, she typically declined playing in the second half of the game because she hadn’t finished her half-time snack of oranges and string cheese. Also, she did not appreciate the running. It made her sweaty.

So, other than a lovely little reminiscent tale of my now 20 year-old daughter, what is the point?

The point is that preschoolers are often thrust into team sports and organized games before they even have the physical, cognitive or emotional skills to play organized sports.

Think about the physical aspect: Preschoolers gross motor skills are still developing such that running and kicking as separate activities are difficult enough, but putting them together is practically impossible. Their ability to throw with accuracy is not yet developed. In short, they lack the coordination to complete the basic athletic skills required to play the game.

Cognitively, team sports are not great for preschoolers either. Preschoolers are concrete thinkers. Unless they are holding the ball, they are not playing the game. They cannot possibly understand how to strategize a play. Understanding the rules is difficult (anyone who has witnessed a kid running from home plate to third base or a basket being tossed into the wrong hoop can attest to this).

Finally, emotionally it is difficult for preschoolers to cope with adults barking orders at them while they play.   Frustration and discouragement sets in when kids cannot execute what the adults are asking them to do.   Fun and increased self-esteem, two of the major objectives of preschoolers doing sports, ceases to exist.

Yes, they are adorable in their uniforms and playing with other kids is a good thing. But the downside is that kids can become disenchanted with organized sports believing they are not very good at them or thinking that they are not very fun.

On the flip side, preschoolers do need to be active. Very active, in fact.   The National Association of Sports and Physical Education (NASPE) recommends that every day preschoolers should:

  • get at least 60 minutes of structured physical activity (adult-led activity)
  • get at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity (free play)
  • not be inactive for more than 1 hour at a time (unless sleeping)

So what is a parent to do?

Well, gymnastics of course! (And swimming, dance, karate, tennis or a skills development program in other ball sports are all more appropriate choices for the preschool set.)

What is best for preschoolers are classes and activities that allow the child to participate fully, led by coaches who are expert at developing gross motor skills and coordination and have no competitive element (or are limited to competing for a personal best). And, at home, turn on music and dance around, chase each other and ride tricycles and scooters.

Please know that I am not suggesting that enrolling your preschooler in a team sport is tantamount to child abuse. And for some kids (especially those who are more athletically inclined or are mature for their age physically), it is a great thing.   What I am suggesting, however, is that the preschool years of developing a young athlete should be focused on basic athletic skills and listening skills that will create a foundation for fitness for life. When a child is 6 or 7 years old and has had some basic athletic training, then introducing them to team sports is appropriate and is likely to lead to a more successful and happier experience.

What ever happened to Samara? Well, after receiving her obligatory you-showed-up-for-8- weeks-so-here-is-an-award trophy, she never played a ball sport again. Opting instead for dance classes (lots of pink and purple there, not to mention that array of shoes needed for all styles of dance), singing lessons and musical theater.  That NCAA scholarship was replaced by a full tuition payment to Tisch/NYU for her to study acting.

Oh, and when she moved to college, she took an entire suitcase full of shoes.