Is It Ever 'Too Late' for a Kid To Start Sports?

As August rolled into September, I pulled out my tweens’ school calendar and started organizing their schedules and activities. And, well … the calendar looked a little bare this year. Which is great, of course. I don’t want to overload my kids. I want them to have time to be kids, to have a minute to breathe after the school day, to have time for a family dinner. But, it was too bare. No sports were adding a few practices a week plus games to our schedule. No music or drama clubs with a handful of rehearsals to race to per week.

There was too much free time after school, which I know from experience translates to too much screen time, especially on the days when their friends are busy with activities, and I’m working or otherwise preoccupied with single-parent business.

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Both my kids have tried and rejected dozens of sports and activities in their short lives — soccer, art, music, drama. (Seriously, you name it, they’ve tried it.) They simply haven’t found their passion — the thing that makes them feel challenged and excited; the thing that makes them want to fill their schedule.

And honestly, I’m out of ideas. Which means maybe it’s time to give some activities a second chance, particularly the ones that they tried and rejected when they were many years younger.

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It was easy enough to find an age-appropriate music lesson or drama club, but when I went to sign them up for sports (the ones they agreed to re-try), I hit a mental wall. Emblazoned on that wall was the question: is it too late? Are they too late to pick up a new sport, given that their friends have been playing for years — some since the very first years of school? Are they too late to be beginners when their peers are so much more?

My gut instinct said no — of course, it’s not too late. There’s no such thing as “too late.” But a niggling worry kept whispering that maybe I was pushing them into an impossible situation, or even toward failure.

As it turns out, that gut instinct was spot on. (One day, I’ll learn to trust my gut. Until then … Google.)

It’s never too late to start a sport.

Greg Bach, Sr. Director of Communications & Content for the National Alliance for Youth Sports and author of 10 books on coaching kids, including Secrets of Successful Coaching, confirmed that gut instinct. In an email to SheKnows, he wrote, “Youth and teens should always be encouraged to try new sports that interest them at any age.” He noted, “There are countless examples of well-known athletes who didn’t discover a sport that they now excel in until their high school years, or even collegiate years.”

In fact, starting a sport later could even be beneficial to kids for two key reasons. One, the risk of overuse injuries is decreased, thanks to fewer years of doing the same repetitive movements. And two, the risk of burnout is minimized. Michael Pfahl, executive director of the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, estimates that by the time young athletes turn 13, 70% of them quit team sports. Children who start later are less likely to be “sabotaged by [either of these] issues,” notes Bach.

Small steps over time lead to big results.

Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, there are some considerations parents (like me) should keep in mind before rushing to the registration line (or online portal, considering it’s 2023). Mainly, kids who start a sport later than their peers will most likely be behind when it comes to understanding the fundamentals and nuances of a sport, writes Bach. That can be frustrating, or even downright discouraging. It might be a reason some kids (mine included) decide to quit before they’ve given the sport a real chance … or second chance, as the case may be.

But quitting before they give the sport a real chance is undoubtedly a mistake. As much as possible, parents should help their children see that “embracing the challenges and celebrating the small steps that occur along the way to gradual improvement” can be a truly rewarding journey, writes Bach. Which, actually, is a great life lesson for kids, anyway. Almost anything they want to do in life, whether personally or professionally, will require climbing a learning curve. The sooner that’s normalized, the better.

Part of normalizing the learning curve means encouraging patience. Bach urges parents to help their child “understand that learning a new sport takes time,” and parents should strive to be a “constant source of positive feedback and encouragement” to their child. That means never allowing a game outcome, score, or performance to impact how you interact with your child. “Praise effort and attitude, and reinforce to kids that if they stick with the sport they will see improvement in their skills,” writes Bach.

It all comes down to your “why”.

With the knowledge that it was most certainly not too late to sign up my tweens for sports, and as my finger hovered over the “register” button, the choice to sign them up or not came down to my “why”— why do I want my kids to participate in sports and other activities? It’s not to make them so busy we all feel overwhelmed and stressed. Not to make them feel bad about themselves or less than their peers. But to provide them with something to do, give them opportunities to move their bodies, and (very hopefully) find something they actually love to do.

Because helping them find their passion, the thing that makes them excited to be themselves, is worth the couple nights a week of rushing around and racing from one pick-up to another.

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