One of the questions fitness professionals routinely ask is which sports offer the best development capacity to young athletes. This is a loaded question for several reasons.
First of all, ANY sporting activity led by a quality-based coach is wonderful for kids. That being said, the true crux and efficacy of that statement is based largely on the "quality-based coach" comment.
It is only when poorly educated and over zealous parents and coaches (i.e., adults) get involved too heavily in youth sports that the experience can become sour. Parents often push too hard and seek success at a young age. Coaches are often limited in their understanding of developmental science and routinely "drill" kids with "sport specific" exercises that are too narrow in scope (not to mention that many youth sport coaches don’t know how to TEACH specific aspects of movement or speed and yet get annoyed when their athletes don’t perform a given drill to a high enough standard).
One of the most prominent and problematic realities of the above comments is that there don’t seem to be many outlets for kids just to play anymore. Every young sporting activity seems to have become a life or death struggle that MUST climax in a victory. Heaven forbid we actually teach developmentally sound skills in a fun and energetic way in order to promote a wholeness to our kids' development, which by the way should include emotional stability (for instance, highlighting the skills gained in a given season rather than the wins and the trophies accrued) and mental stimulation (in the form of engaging life lessons that instill a life-long love for physical activity rather than a "win at all costs" mentality, which can burden kids with various complexes for years).
Having said that, parents should be encouraged to remove the desire to watch their eight year olds win the weekend tournament. Coaches should be encouraged to remove their "Lombardi" hats when they walk into a practice or game situation, and lastly, strength and conditioning coaches should be encouraged to remove their yearning to "test" young athletes from a biomotor perspective and look only to increase a child’s ability from a performance outlook.
In fact, the message is simple: play sports seasonally. Find coaches and programs that highlight skill acquisition rather than victory. Trainers should do the same and should be willing to work towards instilling skills into kids rather than creating performance markers.
So, here than are the top four sports I believe all kids should play (in no particular order).
In most parts of North America, kids lack foot dexterity, and soccer is a wonderful natural enhancer of both foot dexterity and foot-eye coordination. Don’t pigeon hole this ability as only necessary for soccer either. Remember, the crux of developing a "whole" athlete is to engross them in as much athletic stimulus as possible at a young age. Increased foot dexterity will, in time, round out young athletes' overall ability and allow them to progress in their "chosen" sport more proficiently.
Additionally, although many North Americans might find soccer to be "boring," it is a wonderfully athletic and tactical-based sport. Sudden bursts of explosive power, change of direction, looking two plays ahead, playing a "forcing" based defense in which the defender uses his body/skills to change what the offensive player wanted to do... these are fantastic athletic lessons that can be filed away in the nervous system and used at a later point in any sporting activity.
Unloaded shoulder and hip mobility adds a great deal of pliability to the frame of a young athlete. With so many injuries occurring due to restrictions and tightness in kids (and I believe wholeheartedly that many of the youth sport injuries we see annually throughout the world could be prevented with a simple and basic increase in both systemic strength and mobility), hip and shoulder mobility initiatives are crucial.
Additionally, kinesthetic differentiation is a physical skill lacking in many kids (this refers to the knowledge of how much force is necessary to produce a desired result). My opinion on this matter is simple: everything we tend to do with kids, both in sport and training, is based on maximal efforts. In our zeal to search for those "performance markers," we overlook the notion that sub-maximal efforts are both developmentally sound and build certain physical qualities not seen in high force-based outputs. Swimming is the essence of building kinesthetic differentiation. Kids simply won’t last long in a pool if they put as much force as possible into every stroke.
Almost every martial art I am familiar with is based on skill acquisition as a primary marker. Not only is that mentally and emotionally good for a child but it infers the teaching of patience and "enjoying the journey" rather than "searching for the destination."
While a great deal of martial arts practices in North America have become watered down (if you know anything about traditional martial arts, you know it is slightly ridiculous for an eight year old to earn a black belt), most organizations I am familiar with teach a wonderful style of patient skill development and discipline.
Athletically speaking, dynamic flexibility, end-range systemic strength, mobility, spatial awareness... the physical ability built through martial arts is awe-inspiring and can apply to any sport.
Again, the physical elements that can be built through gymnastics are amazing: spatial awareness, flexibility, relative strength, dynamic and static balance. The list goes on. Gymnastics should be on this list if, for no other reason, than for the ability to know where you are in space and take a fall "well," which is a required skill for any sport.
The above list of sports is nothing without a quality coach at the helm of each of these respective sports. Martial arts instructors, for instance, are often archaic in their knowledge of warm up design, as are gymnastic coaches in their practices of flexibility enhancement. Having said that, good coaches do exist, and I urge parents to find them. I also encourage trainers to seek out joint venture partnerships with quality coaches and augment a child’s development with solid strength and skill acquisition-based training habits.
Play soccer in the autumn. Swim in the summer. Participate in martial arts through the winter. Take gymnastics in the spring. Mix in some developmental training and play other sports recreationally for interest and development sake (basketball and baseball, for example). By the age of 13 to 14, you’ll have helped to create a solid athlete with limited injury who understands sport tactics and is strong, mobile and flexible!