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July 23, 2013

LIZ CIANCONE: How early should kids be pushed into sports?

TERRE HAUTE — Just when I thought I’d heard everything, I got a heads up the other day.

A national news magazine reported on the national championship finals — not of the NBA, but a play-off for second-grade basketball teams. Yep! Six-and 7-year-olds from all over the country gathered in Memphis for bragging rights in basketball.

It would be tough for a kid with even a dab of coordination to ignore what has become America’s fascination with competitive sports. Most kids develop an interest in some sort of physical activity. We played baseball on a vacant lot in our neighborhood when the kid who actually owned a ball was automatically the pitcher and the game ended when he got mad and went home.

I believe it is good to encourage a child to be physically active. We hear enough about childhood obesity to encourage any activity played with something other than thumbs on a keyboard. It can also be a great shared family experience to watch high school or college or professionals play ball.

I don’t disapprove of hero worship. But reading the article I read, it didn’t sound as if the kids were having that much fun while the coaches and the parents yelled at each other. It came across as what the late Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!”

It seems logical to encourage a child with good coordination and an interest in sport to try several different sports to see which best suits his (or her) interests and abilities. To commit a 6-year-old to a sport seems to border on child abuse, yet the article indicated that unless a kid commits by fourth grade, he will be too far behind to ever become a star performer on the court.

I wish I could pinpoint when games ceased to be games. Winning is more fun than losing, but there’s a lot to be learned from trying your best even though you may fall short of number one. At least you have been involved in teamwork and have had some self-discipline and good exercise.

Games are big business, very big indeed. I do know that, as a parent, I’d want to be confident that the choice to participate was based on what my child wanted — not what I wanted for him — or her.

Liz Ciancone is a retired Tribune-Star reporter. Send email to opinion@tribstar.com.

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