Big games for little athletes

Times Staff Writer

In the center of a field of fake grass, about a dozen 3- and 4-year-olds are attempting to learn soccer -- or a reasonable facsimile. Kicking and chasing after scaled-down balls, some charge ahead with glee, expertly guiding the balls with their feet. Others scoot along hesitantly, their faces masks of intensity.

"Score it in the goal! Score it in the goal!" the coach yells excitedly nearby. One boy nails the goal with a single kick, while another takes three to four attempts. A little girl in pigtails scoops up one ball with her arms and simply drops it into the net.

Such is organized sports for preschoolers. Parents may be crazy for it, but childhood development experts ... less so.

No longer content to wait until their children are 5 or, heaven forbid, 8 (the age most kids start in organized sports leagues), moms and dads are enrolling their offspring in structured programs at the age of 3 and 4. The Lil Kickers soccer program at the Upland Indoor Sports Arena, where the extremely young soccer players were roaming, even has a class for 18-month-olds.

Such preschool-focused programs -- including ones for basketball and T-ball -- teach specific skills, general motor development and sometimes concepts such as teamwork -- not always an easy lesson for a population whose conversations can consist largely of the word, "Mine!" Coed classes can be found in parks and recreation programs and private sports organizations across the nation and, coordinators say, enrollment numbers are growing every year. Many programs even have waiting lists.

The environment is mostly noncompetitive (no one wants to tell a 3-year-old she cost the game), but the fact that organized sports have infiltrated toddlerhood doesn't sit well with many exercise and child development experts.

Graduating to training pants, they say, doesn't necessarily signal a readiness for structured programs with equipment and rules and expectations of victory or failure. Of course physical activity trumps sitting around watching TV, says Michael Bergeron, exercise physiologist and assistant professor at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. But, he says, sports lessons might not be the best alternative.

"It might seem innocent to say, 'Come on, catch this, run harder,' but they may be trying to get kids to do things they're not capable of doing, and that leads to frustration and anxiety," says Bergeron, who's also chairman of the American College of Sports Medicine's Youth Sports and Health Initiative. "Kids who are further along developmentally look better than those who are not, and kids can start feeling resentment."

Even having parents on the sidelines watching can put undue pressure on very young children, says Bergeron: "Believe me, a kid knows people are watching him miss the ball. It's different in the backyard -- you have dad kicking the ball, acting just as goofy as the kid. Structure is pressure, and it leads to frustration if a child isn't ready for that."

Much of what kids need to learn can be found during free play, says Bergeron -- running around a playground, exploring the backyard and playing with age-appropriate equipment and toys. When play becomes beset by rules, i.e. don't pick up a soccer ball, don't kick a basketball, kids can lose their natural enthusiasm and willingness to try new things. "What is their attention span?" he says. "Are you asking them to listen and understand beyond what they're capable of doing?"

Crystal Branta, associate professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University, says preschool level is prime time for learning and developing motor skills such as throwing, catching, jumping and running, "But that doesn't mean," she adds, "doing drill after drill."

Among today's adults, however, many want structure. After all, if they didn't care about specific skills, they could just turn kids loose in the park.

"Many parents don't feel competent teaching their children movement skills," says Branta, also a staff member at Michigan State University's Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. And though many suburbs often have large, well-kept parks, urban areas can lack parks, playgrounds and even decent backyards. "A lot of parents are isolated," she adds. "And many are working."

For them, structured sports gives their kids the chance to socialize with other kids, and get a leg up on skills seen as increasingly valuable. "I think parents understand that in school, kids are popular and valuable when they're able to do sports," she says.

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An early start

Classes for 3-year-olds are easily found via local parks and recreation programs, as well as through some private programs and facilities, such as the Upland Arena. The American Youth Soccer Organization, a nationwide nonprofit group that sponsors soccer programs, knocked its starting age down to 4 years old from 5 years old in 2004.

National executive director Rick Davis thinks 4-year-olds have the mental and physical capabilities to begin to learn soccer skills. And it's not really soccer at that age anyway, he insists. "We're introducing them to the sport in fun ways, from simple motor coordination things like walking around the ball to kicking and shooting and passing. If you were a soccer coach, you wouldn't be sure you were seeing a soccer practice."

Yet AYSO's Under-Five program has an entire page of rules and guidelines on its website for three-on-three games, where it says, "The two goals of the program are to allow the players to enjoy the activities and to let the game be the teacher." Headings include, "The Start of Play," "The Kick-off," "Ball In and Out of Play" and "Fouls and Other Stoppages."

Part of the decision to start kids at age 4, says Davis, came from parent demand. "Moms and dads who had kids in the programs would look at their child on the field having a great time," he says, "and sitting next to them is their 4-year-old. They'd wonder why he or she couldn't do similar things. They specifically asked about it." Davis adds that more than 30,000 kids enrolled the first full year the program was offered.

But business also factored into the decision. "A number of other programs were reaching down to kids younger and younger, with other activities, and we felt that we were not providing a similar soccer experience," he says. "If these kids go to basketball and have a wonderful time, they may never decide to give soccer a try."

But sports for 3- and 4-year-olds should be very different from sports for older kids.

Parents must make sure that the activities are developmentally appropriate and that the coach can teach a range of skill levels, because children don't progress equally, Branta says.

All 3-year-olds, she points out, can't kick a moving ball -- and having to throw and catch a ball could be frustrating for some. When teaching kids, an emphasis should be placed, she says, on the quality of movement: "How the skill is done, where is the body positioned, where does the foot land -- some understanding of form and technique."

Greg Payne, a professor of kinesiology at Cal State San Jose, adds that sports for 3- and 4-year-olds shouldn't include competition or pressure.

But that's not always easy for overly eager parents. More intense competition for placement on school teams is pushing them to enroll their kids younger, and more often, which can lead to burnout.

"You're seeing very young kids doing sports at an early age, and it's intense, year-round with very little breaks," says Payne, also a spokesman for the California Assn. for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. "Even seasonally, I see parents pushing way harder than the child can tolerate."

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No pressure

Most parents maintain that they want their kids to have fun and get some exercise, not start thinking about the major leagues. Chris Poupard enrolled his 3-year-old son Lucas in the Lil Kickers program at the Upland Arena a year ago. "He likes kicking around the soccer ball at home, so we thought an organized program would be good for him. I think they can teach him a lot more, like about listening and following directions."

Lucas also takes ballet lessons at his older sister's dance school, which Poupard says he asked to do. And while it's too early to tell if his son has developed an appreciation for soccer, he says he won't push him if he doesn't want to play.

"If he enjoys it, great, but right now he's just trying out everything. We're not going to push him into being a soccer player."

The main objectives for the 3- and 4-year-olds who take classes at the Upland Arena are teaching teamwork, listening skills, and how to interact with their peers, says Teri Armstrong, coordinator of the arena's Lil Kickers program.

Every endeavor, she adds, is applauded. "We want them to learn that every effort they make to do anything, whether they succeed or not, is praiseworthy. So what if you missed the goal, you kicked that ball way across the field. It's a lot to get up and do something in front of someone."

Although soccer skills are taught, including how to pass and kick, "If they don't get it, it's not a big deal. They don't even know half the time they're learning soccer."

The class is mostly made up of a series of imaginative games that involve any combination of superheroes, dragons and spaceships. Soccer is woven in, a la dribbling the ball around orange cones, holding the ball and kicking it, or shooting for a goal. Most of the boys and girls seem to follow directions, with the exception of a few stragglers who veer off course or lose their balls. One 3-year-old boy, in class for the first time, presses his face against the plastic partition, crying for his mother who sits nearby on the bleachers. She quickly rescues him.

Russell and Sandra Purcey are at the arena with their grandsons; Aaron, 6, and Nicholas, 3. Nicholas has just started the program, and Aaron is a veteran, beginning while still in diapers and continuing onto AYSO. "You need to learn skills in life -- and coordination," says Russell Purcey, who coached high school baseball and soccer. "Skills carry over. With Aaron, I think soccer helped with his karate."

He also wants his grandsons to learn discipline and teamwork. "I think it's important that they start so young because it keeps them active," he says.

Although he's concerned about the possibility of early burnout, Purcey hopes his grandsons will keep sports a part of their life.

"Are you kidding?" he says, turning around to reveal a karate school logo on his sweatshirt. "We're both in karate. Aaron's almost a brown belt."

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jeannine.stein@latimes.com

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