Too old to play?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend was telling me her son wanted to play soccer in their town’s recreational league, but she had a problem. Her son was too old to be “a beginner”.

Around here, soccer is a big deal (probably for you too?), with recreational leagues starting for kids as young as 3 and “travel soccer” teams—these require try-outs—beginning in third grade. You can spot the soccer kids pretty early—they can dribble and shoot and run like a grade-schooler before they can even tie their own cleats.

But, my friend’s son is seven. And that bummed me out. Is seven now considered “too old” to start a sport?

She isn’t alone in feeling this way. In fact, I clearly remember when Belly was playing first-grade soccer, and I looked over at the second graders playing and thought, “she’s going to get crushed in there.” To Belly, soccer was fun, social and not really all that competitive. But the girls in the grade above were a well-oiled machine at seven. I can understand my friend’s hesitation to throw her son into it.

Another example: My friend’s daughter is a gifted gymnast, but never took a serious gymnastics class until she was ten. When she began, she was told that she may be too old to get onto the more competitive track because of her age—the other girls had started training much, much younger. (thankfully, I think her ability convinced them otherwise, but if she had been 11 when she started? probably not)

Want to play football? Don’t wait too long. . .our town’s third graders start practicing daily in August. . . if you wait until junior or (gasp) high school to try out for a sport, you’ll be years in training behind some of your peers.

What about ballet? Jilly’s Pre-Ballet class had only one ten-year-old in it; everyone else was younger. Not such a big deal if you are small, but a tall twelve year old would tower over her much-younger classmates.

Now, to be fair, I don’t think that most of these classes/teams/groups overtly state that older kids can’t join in—-but older kids will surely notice that everyone seems to have gotten on board a lot earlier than they, and I imagine this discourages a lot of kids from even trying.

What do you think?

Is this a parent-created problem in that we’re worried about our kid being the worst one on the stage/field/mat, so we discourage them from starting something much later than their peers?

Or, do you think your kids don’t want to try out for something new because they’d be starting at square one when their friends are already on square 15?


  1. I would really like to place blame here on one Earl Woods, yep, Tiger Woods' father. He began teaching his son how to play golf at age 2. I think that most parents do want the best for their children and would like them to excel at whatever interests them. But I do think that some parents are looking a little too hard and hoping that their child will get a scholarship or be a phenom at an early age. So no I really don't think that 7 is too old.

  2. I started my 9 year old in swimming lessons this month (she knows how to swim, but lessons for proper strokes to qualify for a swim team) and she is by far the oldest. There are younger children two groups ahead of her in ability. I did not get her started early because I believe in imagination play and wanted her to enjoy playing in the neighborhood rather than in the car running to various practices. She wants to start soccer, but I fear she will be "too old" *sigh*. I will say my kiddo is an expert tree climber and can make up any game:) Those are skills only learned when given the opportunity to play and explore!

  3. I definitely see this happening, and although it might have started parent-driven, it began a cycle that keeps perpetuating itself. My daughter was anxiety-ridden at a young age and refused to do a class of any kind until she was 9. She's very athletic and would probably do great at rec soccer (especially since all the superstars are on travel team now), but she says she is "too old" to start. So older kids are turned away either by their own worries or because they're not allowed. In gymnastics, she really is an "old lady", but seems to have caught up with many of her age-peers. She will probably never make it to the upper levels, but can still enjoy the sport and compete. I think kids who start older (in any sport) are often stronger, more motivated, and developmentally ahead of the younger ones, so they often can move ahead faster. I can't imagine a 7 year old is too young to start soccer! That seems a bit extreme.

  4. Wow, that's just wrong. Alex had a girl on her U10 soccer team last year who never played before. Although I can say, around here, most kids start around 3-4 and the one's serious about it stick with it. This year, we allowed Alex to duel roster – something we said we'd never do- to play both for school and Rec. But only because she's in 5th grade, and a tiny 5th grader at that- and school has just a Varsity team, so we don't know how much playing time she'll get. But practicing with the bigger kids will be good for her, we think. Her Rec coach knows and is fine if she misses some practices. He also didn't want to lose her because his team just moved up and is a majority of smaller kids who haven't played the u10 level before so he wants sort of a mentor.

    Charlotte (who's in third grade) has a friend who is playing both comp and rec. This child's older sibling plays comp, rec and school – which is a bit much if you ask me.

    As for swimming, my girls took lessons when they were younger and ALex flew through the levels. However, she got stuck on one of the higher levels when she was 5 because she didn't have the muscle's or endurance to do what she needed to (she was in class with 10-12 year old's). We stopped formal lessons for them all then because realistically, we realized they needed to be a little older. We're thinking of starting them back up this year.

    Charlotte has expressed interest in trying both basketball and baseball this year – she's 8, so we are going to let her try. Her school has a program she can join for basketball (although lot of kids in it have been in it since 1st grade). I'm not sure what to do with baseball as she's too old for t-ball but hasn't played before. We will look into it in the spring when the time comes.

    My philosophy is, if they want to try it, the ycan, but once they start a season, they have to finish. ANd even now, with Alex being older and more competative, we remind them, it's just a game and all we care is if they are having fun (and doing the best they can).

    I HATE seeing parents out there who are all out to win. I coached 3-5 year old soccer for 2 years and couldn't believe how bad the parents were. Yelling, encouraging their kids to push others out of the way, etc. They're brutal!!!!

  5. I absolutely think that the situation is adult-driven, and I think it's a real shame.

    When I was a kid, I don't remember there being organized sports until middle school ('course, I lived in the boonies), and then everyone could try out and make whatever team. Now I have friends with kids in middle and high school, and to make school teams, you have to have played the rest of the year in other leagues to maintain your skills and get ahead. Everyone wants to get something dramatic from sports – a college scholarship or to land a spot on a national team. It's not just about having fun anymore.

    I don't want my 5 or 7 year old to face intense competition at such a young age. On the other hand, I don't want them to decide they're too old to even try – when they are only ELEVEN, for crying out loud.

    Huh. You have given me some things to think about….

  6. Nan | WrathOfMom says

    This is an awesome post. And I like Mr Q's comment. A. LOT.

    Around here the big thing is hockey. If you're not playing hockey at age 6, then you've missed your window to join. It's dictated by parents who see sport as the avenue for fame and fortune for their children. Fun? What is this "fun" you speak of? It's ALL about your kid being the next Tiger Woods (hopefully, minus the hookers/hostesses/strippers).

    Have you read Malcolm Gladwell's book "The Outliers" — it's got some fantastic insight into the myth of the phenom.

  7. Yeah, that sucks. My little guy played Tball for the first time this spring and I was worried that at 5, he was the oldest on his team; all his friends were already in A ball. Then Mr. Q., a skilled baseball player, looked it me with shock and said, "I didn't even start until I was 8!"

    Parents are definitely putting their kids in sports earlier. But that doesn't necessarily mean they will be BETTER. L has been playing soccer since he was 4, and three seasons later, I hope he actually runs after the BALL. :>)

    I hope we can let kids be kids, have fun, exercise and decide what they will be great at. I'd sad to think kids are too afraid to try out because our competitive nature has mucked things up.

  8. Golden Bryant says

    Here in our town, it's baseball. My kids have never been interested in baseball until this summer. They are almost 7 and 11.5. They played it in the yard all summer, every day, for hours. Watched every Red Sox game. My youngest will probably sign up for baseball in the Spring. My oldest? Even he said, "it's too late." He's not the most coordinated and there would be a HUGE difference in ability due to this and the lack of experience. It's sooo competetive. It's such a shame. He would love to be part of a team.

  9. My son is playing in the competitive soccer league for the first time this year. He is 9. The other kids on his team have been together since they were 7. He's been playing recreational since kindergarten, and he's a soccer nut, and he's one of the better players on the team. But the team itself, kids and parents alike, are incredibly exclusive. The attitude is, "We've been paying thousands more than you, so my kid should play far more than yours." I'm getting annoyed just writing about this.

    Oh for the days of not starting any sport until we were 8 or 9!

  10. Chicky Chicky Baby says

    We started Julia in Red soccer at 3 yrs and she's starting her second year (3rd season) of town league soccer this week. But not because we wanted her to get a leg up on the competition (my gah, do people think that way?) but because she's athletic but needs structure. She did t-ball at 5 and girls softball at six and will probably do it again next year. Again, she's uber-athletic. That's just her thing. It does worry me sometimes that we're headed down some undesirable path but she's so excited about every new season that I just can't see a negative yet. Except all that scheduling and chauffeuring. 😉

    With that said, I think it's great when a kid starts on a team who just started playing. I think it not only grounds the kids, who honestly never seem to mind, but the parents as well. A little humility is a good thing. It's a good reminder that it takes all types to make the world go 'round.

  11. Chicky Chicky Baby says

    Shoot, that was "Rec" soccer, not "Red" soccer. We're socialists, not communists. 😉

  12. Michael Allen says

    Our town is an odd combination of football-loving rednecks but also UK Soccer All-Stars.

    Any sport is revered. Any. As long as your kid is dragging himself to a field every afternoon and weekend, he's golden.

    And, yes…it's ALL adult-driven. 🙁

  13. my son never picked up a basketball until 6th grade when his 5'8" self was drafted. That was a very small school. He then played three years at a very competititve, very large 4K plus HS. So much for starting early. My sophomore didn't play waterpolo until freshman year and now is on varsity and olympic training team. These teams shouldn't discourage trying something out!

  14. Alissa Bonds says

    It's never too late to learn, let alone play. In some cases though, it may be too old to compete professionally. Your example with toddler gymnastics is great: the earlier you start, the bigger the potential to shine.

  15. You’re never too old to try something new for the heck of it. But for social and developmental reasons, a parent does have to keep an eye on the “typical” age at which kids start a sport. For some kids, the social aspect is huge, so it’s important to make sure those kids can fit in with similar-aged peers. Being a beginner at age 10 isn’t so fun if the only other beginners are 5. However, sports like soccer usually have enough different streams that you can find a group of similar-aged peers.

    That said, for many sports, older kids are stronger and can learn much faster than younger kids and can close the gap quickly if they’re willing to work. My son started hockey at age 7 and closed the gap on kids who had already been playing for 2-4 years already because he was willing to take powerskating and work hard. He went from 5th percentile to about 90th percentile in the space of 2 seasons.

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