How Young is Too Young for Sports?

Dr. Brad Kayden weighs in on early sports education

Welcome to Locally Grown! Locally Grown introduces you to the people and stories behind local Lake County Businesses.Have you meet Dr. Brad Kayden yet? He’s the founder and director of Jelly Bean Sports, a youth sports training program. There’s a lot of talk about youth sports in the media, how it’s taught, when, where it’s taught. Today Dr. Kayden is sharing with us his thoughts on how young is too young for sports.

too young for sports

Mess makers, poor listeners, shy, and bad at following directions, there may be no more two unlike things that exist in the world than young children and competitive sports.

 Early learners, children birth to age five, possess a natural immaturity.  So much so, the American Academy of Pediatrics says immaturity has a dramatic effect on children’s sports participation.

Immaturity renders young children, in many cases, unsportsmanlike.

Unsportsmanlike as the new normal

The faux pas of all faux pas’ in sports, unsportsmanlike is a negative label we, as parents, more aim to shield our children from than to try and get them to embrace.

As crazy as it will be to read and as it is for me to even say, it is important for me to tell you, young children’s unsportsmanlike behavior is completely normal.  That was not the crazy part.   This is.  Prevention of early learners’ unsportsmanlike behaviors actually does them more harm than good inside their sports development.

This news, for many of you with young children, will occur as odd but it should become your new normal.

When it comes to early learning in sport, we have to stop stressing out about the all the rules of sport.  They in many cases set the expectations to high and have no place in early learners’ exploratory sports process.

At Jelly Bean Sports, we have replaced the rules with fun that comes with its own set of rules most young children are not willing to compromise.

too young for sports
Photo provided by Jelly Bean Sports

Of course sports are an opportunity to gently encourage children about what is right and wrong in sport but never should there be reason to get mad or inhibit their exploratory process, safety aside.

When young children play sports we, as adults, need to learn how to more play on their terms, then our own, if we expect them to truly learn sports lessons.

Let me disclose that when I say unsportsmanlike, I speak in the context of sports.  I am not talking about anti-social behaviors like hitting, biting or bullying other children.

Albeit rude in our minds, the playing of sport by early learners is done in crude ways that we should expect from them.

Education research tells us that early learners do not learn the same ways as elementary-aged children.  Hence, they will not play sports the same way either.

Early learners must be allowed to explore sports outside the boundaries of the rules; essentially, being allowed to break all the rules.  It is in this way and through the integration of fun that unsportsmanlike is able to become just another part of the natural order of sport.

We should feel comfortable acknowledging it and  talking about in this context openly without fear of reprisal.

too young for sports

Sports are broken

 Consider your first sports experience.  For many of us it is hard.  We were too young.  Hence, we are forced to accept sports the ways they more occur in the world around us, in competitive fashion.

The problem is sports for early learners are happening in less than competitive fashion; they are non-competitive.  So how we must more commonly think about sports and how it actually occurs for early learners differently.

In the case of early learning in sport, we have long used elementary-aged sports lessons, but these do not work for the ways toddlers and preschool-aged learners think.

Fortunately, early learning in sport exists as a place where children’s development is still being regularly focused on.  But even here the developmental process is blurry or broken at best.

There are very few folks that are trained and highly effective at knowing how to work well and overcome the immaturity factors of early learners.  The process of translating complex sports concepts or movements for kids presents a large challenge for most.

Historically, sports science has provided the developmental building blocks in the way of knowledge to help us better understand things like early learners.

In the case of early learning in sports, however, it has been largely overlooked by sports science.  In fact, sports science still goes as far as to identify the entry point into sports to be age 6 creating what I call the Early Learning in Sports Gap.  Sports science’s general consensus about the entry point into sports occurs in direct conflict with a report by University of Texas Anthropology professor Robert Malina, Ph.D.  He found that 13% of the 42 million children playing organized sports annually are under age six.

too young for sport
Photo provided by Jelly Bean Sports

So where does it all leave us as parents of early learners?  Confused.  And just as generations of parents before us have had to do, we are left feeling compelled to ask the same question, “how young is too young for sports?


The lack of acceptance for early learning

 In the last ten years, early learning has had the highest growth rate in sports.

However just because there are more programs for early learners than ever before does not mean everyone is a fan.

In fact, a November 2010 New York Times article entitled Sports Training Has Begun for Babies and Toddlers left some likening early learning in sport to an NFL-combine for babies.

Lumped in with the many unsavory issues of its big brother, youth sports, early learning in sport has failed to find much footing inside its own evolution.

The accusation is that it, like youth sports, is filled with overzealous parents, coaches and sports organizations’ that are putting young children in harms way.  They seek any competitive advantage including starting children in sports at earlier and earlier ages.

The Times article further left some to believe parents of early learners, like most of us, to be the worst kind.   We are abusive of our powers as parents when it comes to involving our young children in sports.

Read the comments in the New York Times article and you will find yourself and other parents of early learners painted as starry-eyed dreamers with a fervent personal agenda.  Society believes we:

  • Only see our young children in sports as extensions of ourselves
  • Aim our young children towards winning above all else, and
  • Spend our days overscheduling our young children to play sports so that they can receive the coveted sports scholarship or professional contract that we most want for them
too young for sports
photo provided by Jelly Bean Sports

 Parenting majority doing sports right    

I have four children, ages 6, 4, 3 and 1.  If you are anything like my wife and I, we are just trying to survive our days.  Yes, these types of delusional parents, teachers, coaches and companies do exist.   Yet, they are far and away anything but the majority, especially in early learning in sport.

At this early learning stage in our children’s lives, we, as parents, as I think you would agree, have a lot more to worry about then our children’s long-term sports careers.

And speaking on behalf of the right-minded majority of parents of the world today, I think if you, like us, were to come in contact with any of these types of competitively-minded individuals or organizations, you would smartly turn and walk the other way.

As an early learning sports researcher, family magazine contributor, parent, early learning coach and owner of an early learning sports organization, I can speak to you on many fronts.

Nothing says more, however, than telling you that after more then a decade working in the field of early learning in sports, I have met some pretty amazing parents.  They are doing sports, early learner to elite, right.

As for the parents we work with.  We teach their children what we would want for our own and in the ways we would want for our own early learners to learn.  For us it is easy, Sports Made Simple, Learning Made Fun.

While the idea sounds good in theory, what does it really mean?

too young for sports
Photo provided by Jelly Bean Sports

To get a feel and spirit for what’s inside our Jelly Bean Sports early learning prep programs, it requires looking at them from the Jelly Bean parents’ perspective:

  • Jelly Bean parents enjoy how we don’t denounce but rather embrace the immaturity and unsportsmanlike nature of their children through the use of things like humor, fun training aids, animation, cartoon characters and fun coach names.
  • Jelly Bean parents respect the focus we place not only on sports development but other areas of learning and development like colors, numbers, shapes and language learning like Spanish.
  • Jelly Bean parents might not be able to say this as directly as I will, but we make their children more coachable. We practice things like listening, following and repeating directions and going as far as having children teach Mom and Dad what they learned.  It is not enough just to hope we’ve taught a child, they must learn in ways that have retention in mind.  When children teach what they learn to Mom and Dad there is as high as a 90% retention rate possibility that surrounds the learning.
  • Jelly Bean Parents also enjoy returning to our early learning sports programs. They have confidence in them and the have the trust in knowing their hard earned dollars are well spent as they watch and see the love for sport their children have written all over theirs and other young children’s faces.


How young is too young for sports? 

There is still a long way to go in helping generations of new parents to understand what early learning in sports is and is not.

My goal is to entirely eliminate the question, how young is too young for sports?

For far too long, this one question has represented sports’ failure to not only recognize early learning in sport; but also its failure to respect the unique process of overcoming immaturity we, as parents, teachers and coaches, endure to introduce early learners to sports.

As you might have already inferred, it is never too early to get your children involved in sports whether it be at home or in an organized program.  As for the latter, many good early learning programs exist today that didn’t just a few years ago.

too young for sports
Photo provided by Jelly Bean Sports

Resources like Little Lake County provide helpful calendars with programming designed for families with early learners.

As far as the age you can involve your child in sports, it will all depend on the programming in your area.

Start by looking online at your local park district and surrounding park districts.  Explore many programs, and don’t stick with just one for too long.  Diversity is the best way to introduce young children to sports.


  • Infant sports programs
    Some parents get their children involved in sports as young as infants.  I know this might sound crazy, but there are non-competitive programs like Mommy & Me swim classes or Mommy & Me yoga programs that are very popular.  Of course, they are not your typical sports programs but rather fun, movement-based ways to get involved, meet other parents and connect with your child.

    I think it is safe to say, the younger the child, the more limited the programming will be available.

  • Toddler sports programs
    Toddlers, as early as 18 months, that are mobile can, beyond swimming, begin to participate in parent-tot gymnastics programs, boutique gym Mommy & Me programs like Gymboree and non-competitive early learning sports programs like ours at Jelly Bean Sports.
  • Preschool sports programs
    As children reach three years of age, the number of organized sports offerings begins to expand.  Further as children enter preschool age, they, besides letters, numbers, colors and shapes, need to also learn the language of physical education, movement.



In conclusion, the idea of asking how young is too young for sport is anything but a bad question.  It is relative to the times we live in.  As parents everywhere are beginning to involve their children in organized sports and other programs, they are asking many of the same questions you are.

Finding the right program for your child can be difficult at first but soon after you will be on your way to meeting new people in your same situation.

At a certain point, you can even ask others to recommend good programs they have experienced.

Remember, parent-participation required does not mean it is optional.  You are a valuable extra pair of hands that the coach much requires to do his or her job well and insure the best class experience for everyone.

See you in class!

Photo courtesy of Jelly Bean Sports

Come back next week to read about Jenna’s experience at Jelly Bean Sports.

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Disclosure: Jelly Bean Sports is our featured Locally Grown Business of the Month. This series of features is part of a paid partnership with Little Lake County. Contact littlelakecounty[at]gmail[dot]com if you are interested in featuring your own locally-owned business in our series.

About Melissa Haak 626 Articles
Melissa is mom to 4. She used to dream of traveling the world, now she dreams of a clean kitchen. She can be found on most social media sites as @PBinmyHair because with this much hair and four kids, you're bound to find something in it.


  1. This is great, and something our family has talked and thought about for a long time! It’s other parents that keep us from sports so young- I want my kids to run wild and free and when they do they’re met with awkward stares and a feeling of judgment. I love your perspective and appreciated reading this- so important. Thanks!

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