There are many schools of thought about when to start playing sports. We have summarized all of these diverse ideas into two very concrete ones. Some authors talk about initiating sports participation during early childhood and others claim that the right time is around 10 years of age.
Although these two schools of thought seem to differ significantly, a deeper analysis would conclude that the differences are only in terminology. The authors that are pro childhood initiation into sports are referring to a general preparation towards a future sports activity; those that favour sports initiation at around 10 years of age are referring to concrete and specific work in any given sport. Therefore, the former authors are not necessarily against working on general conditioning before the child is ten.
SPORTS DURING EARLY CHILDHOOD
Jose Maria Cagigal, in the prologue to the Spanish edition of Sports from Childhood (1) by Liselott Diem, says: “A human being will eventually be what his or her childhood has been.”
According to him, a human being, a person, is formed during early childhood, therefore their development during the first few years of life is very important. This concept is also valid in sport since he considers this motor development as enrichment of the person rather than as a physical and technical adaptation to a sport.
Movement is fundamental in the first three years of life. Because of his movement the child develops his ability to observe and create as well as developing his coordination skills, and subsequently, his sense of balance, space and time.
From 3 to 6 years of age a sport requires the following didactic steps, according to Liselott Diem:
1. Appropriate stimulation and setting.
2. Problem solving using trial and error.
3. Repeating, comparing and judging the results: Comprehension phase.
4. Individual variation of the basic forms: “Creative” phase.
5. Increasing difficulty of the exercises where the individual tries to repeat his own achievements and those of his peers: Recognising real aspiration.
Liselott Diem proposes a great variety of stimuli and exercises in order to improve physical skills.
The best age to acquire physical skills is from 6 to 10, according to these authors. The development of such skills is accomplished through the practice of the different sports.
Sports and games are also another way to develop motor skills. At this age the emphasis is on reacting correctly and consciously applying the proper techniques.
INITIATION TO FOOTBALL
To recognize the optimum age to start participation in football, we need to identify some of the peculiarities of each age group (2):
7 YEARS OLD
The 7-year-old child may have periods in which he or she does a particular activity: Then he or she may drop it for another activity. When he or she is asked to do something the child gets tired of it quickly.
8 YEARS OLD
The child’s disposition towards learning new techniques is greater than at 7. Both boys and girls enjoy playing football. Their interests and attention span switch quickly between different things. Playing without supervision frequently ends in arguments.
9 YEARS OLD
The 9 year old likes to challenge him or herself. If something pleases the 9-year-old he or she will practice until they master the activity. The child is a very curious learner and likes to show off what he or she has learned.
10 YEARS OLD
The 10 year old derives pleasure from simple physical activity. They like to belong to clubs and associations. It is the age of mastering manual skills.
The 9-10 year old is interested in efficient movements and tries to accomplish particular performance levels. Numerous psychologists have agreed that the ideal age to begin motor learning should be the one in which there is no ‘crisis’ in both the physiological and psychological development.
Nicole Comuci (3) considers the age of 10 as the ideal age because at 10 the child has finished a growing phase. This period corresponds to the muscle formation that follows typical bone growth during puberty.
Considering the above observations, it is obvious that the appropriate age of football initiation varies between 9 and 10 because the child possesses many of the skills that allow him or her to master football skills easily.
But if I teach a child to play at the age of 7 and I work with him from then, wouldn't he be a better player at 12 than a child who started at 10?
In order to answer this question we should refer to the field research carried out by Susenberry (4). He concluded that the time employed in mastering a particular skill or technique can be lost if it is carried out at an inappropriate age. (He formed 4 groups of children: two 3 to 4 years olds groups and two 5 to 6 year olds groups). One 3 to 4 year olds group and one 5 to 6 year old group practiced throwing balls; the other two groups did not practice. After a period of time he noticed that the difference between the two groups of 3-4 year olds was not appreciable; however the difference between the two 5-6 year old groups was visible. This shows that it would be better to work on this skill at the 5-6 year old age group than before that age; the work done before then would not be beneficial.
The research also shows that initiation to football involves some requirements regarding pitch and goal dimensions, ball size and equipment etc which should be adapted to the age and physical constitution of the child. If we were to begin at age 7, these requirements should be considered because not to would create a multitude of bad habits and technical defects due to the child’s lack of physiological adaptation to the equipment. For example, if the ball is heavy, when he or she kicks it he or she will do it with the toe of the boot, otherwise it would not be an effective kick. Such a defective kick can become a habit and interfere with the proper kicking skill later on.
Felipe Gayoso (5) recommends the following when initiating a child to soccer:
Physical conditioning: coordination, time and space awareness and body shape.
Technical skills: (global method) trapping the ball, half-trapping with the sole and inside of the foot, cushioning of the ball with the inside and outside of the foot, dribbling with the inside and outside of the foot, kicking with the inside and the instep of the foot, heading.
A way for children to learn without getting bored is through games. A 5-a-side football game is an ideal game in the initiation stage.
The definitive conclusion is that we should encourage from birth anything that involves movement in order to prepare the child for later specific football skills at the age of 9 or 10.
(1) Liselott Diem: Deporte desde la infancia Ed. Miñon . Collection Kine.
(2) Sacado de: El niño de 7 y 8 años, el niño de 9 y 10 de Arnold Gesell y otros. Ed. Paidos.
(3) Comuci, Nicola. Italia. Enseñanza de base a los niños entre los 10 y 14 años. N., 2 de la revista: El Entrenador español de Fútbol. Octubre, 1979.
(4) Sacado de libro: La habilidad en el deporte, de Barbara Knapp. Ed. Miñon. Collection Kine.
(5) Felipe Gayoso. Iniciación al fútbol (8-14). Tesina fin de carrera INEF de Madrid.