Infant Athletes: Are They Getting a Leg Up?

The business of training infant, toddler athletes has grown in recent years


Before the scandals, Tiger Woods was the poster child for how parents can train their kids into sports stars.

He began putting while still in diapers, and by age two, he was showing Bob Hope how to drive a ball on The Mike Douglas Show.

But starting sports training early is by no means new: four year olds play T-ball, and second graders play football. Gymnasts can start at age four or five.

What's changed recently, is that the offerings have grown, and the "athletes" are getting younger. There are programs for babies only four months old.  One claims you may even be able to train an infant as she leaves the hospital.

And at Lil Kickers in Chicago, the kids learn soccer skills even as they're learning to walk.

And at age 18 months to two years old, there's no pressure or competition, explained Director Jordan Bley.

"We are a child development program," Bley explains.

They do wear uniforms, and there is a soccer ball, and Bley said there are parents who show up clearly "wanting their kids to be the next great soccer pro."

But in fact, Bley says that what the kids are really learning is how to get along with each other and follow parents directions.

Sports medicine pediatrician Cynthia Labella said that's age-appropriate, and she says that's the key. Kids develop at a certain pace.

"Skills like kicking a ball, throwing a ball, or swinging a bat, these skills are developed later in childhood. Exposing a toddler to these skills earlier is not going to speed up the process," said Labella.

She said that most kids start at age eight or nine, and the danger of starting much earlier is that the child can burnout.

"You may end up frustrating that child, turning them off on that activity because they can't do it yet," she warned.

What Labella believes may work is exposing a child to many sports without emphasizing one, and allowing them to acquire age-appropriate skills in a broad range of environments and activities outside the home and family.

But if a parent has dreams about their child becoming a star by starting early, the pediatrician says they need to understand that the goal may be unrealistic.

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