Dear Mr. Dad. My 5-year old daughter loves sports. My wife wants to sign her up for all sorts of teams but I’m not so sure. When I was a kid, my dad put a lot of pressure on me to do every sport possible and was so obnoxious on the sidelines that I ended up hating it. I don’t want to put my daughter through the same thing. When’s the “right” time to introduce her to sports?

A: If your daughter loves sports, there’s nothing wrong with getting her on a team. But before you make a non-refundable deposit and buy a bunch of expensive equipment, consider her emotional maturity. Does she listen to—and take direction from—her teacher and other adults in her life? Does she deal well with making mistakes, and can she take constructive criticism? If the answers are No, you may want to wait a while. But if you answered Yes, she’s probably ready for the fun and learning that comes with more structured play.

I’m not talking about competition. At this age, any program your daughter joins—whether it’s soccer, softball, swimming, or one that doesn’t start with S—should focus on appreciating and understanding the game, building and developing basic skills, and having so much fun that she’ll want to do it again next year.

Then, you need to make sure that you, your wife, the coaches, and your daughter have those same expectations. Sure, we’d all love to be the parent of the kid who wins games and gold medals. But the chances that’ll happen are incredibly small.

You’ll also want to consider schedules—yours and your daughter’s. Twice-a-week practices and games every Saturday and Sunday could be overwhelming to everyone concerned. A once-a-week team might be a much less-stressful way to start.

Sports teach a number of really valuable life lessons, such as the need to stick with what you start—no quitting mid-season—and the importance of being a team player. But the most important ones are that nobody wins all the time, and that it takes a lot of hard work to succeed. Young children are easily frustrated and may want to give up if they can’t do something that other kids have already mastered. Telling your daughter about the difficulties you had when first learning a skill—and how hard you had to work to get good at it—will really help.

When the season starts, keep your roles straight: The coach is the coach, you and your wife are the parents. The coach’s job is to teach your daughter the skills she needs to develop, and to remind her to pay attention even if nothing seems to be happening. Your job is to wait ‘til the end of the game and, win or lose, offer a hug, a fist bump, an enthusiastic “great job!” and a snack. Always be upbeat, encouraging, and supportive. Criticizing or getting angry is the surest way to drive your daughter away from that sport.

Finally, during games be the kind of parent you wish your dad had been: Cheering on the sideline is great, but booing the other team, criticizing your daughter or her teammates, or running onto the field and arguing with the officials is not—unless you want your daughter to behave the same way. Ditto for your interactions with coaches. In most cases, they’re other parents who volunteered. If you think you can do better, volunteer next season. In the meantime, if you want to know why your child didn’t play as much as you thought she should, take it up with the coach in private.

Photo credit: pixabay.com