Starting Early

2.16.10: When to start sports

daughter dancing blog.jpg

I always laugh when people tell me how crazy my son is going to make me as he gets older—“boys are wild,” they all seem to say—because no one in this world could be more physically rambunctious than my daughter.

Other females may be sugar and spice, but my kid is a match and a ton of dynamite. She leaps from couches, climbs to the tippy top of playground equipment, insists on throwing herself down the highest slides and insists that her daddy lift her high into the sky on the top of his hands. They call this the “statue of liberty.”

If anyone is going to give me agita, it is not the one with male parts.

Sam has taken art classes, music classes, science classes and everything in between, but nothing lit her fire so much as the dance class she started last week. I am not sure why I am surprised. The kid is all bone and muscle, her legs are rippled like a body builder’s and her delts more defined than my own. She is a gymnast or an acrobat or, apparently, a dancer.

She hops, she bops, she dances to the music in her head outside the circles the other girls make, winding their batons and ribbons around their hands. Sam has her own plan for what dancing means and she loves every second. For me, it is gratifying to see her connect to an activity at such a young age.

Throughout my childhood, I was a gymnast, a ballerina, a horseback rider, an ice skater. As I got older, I was a sprinter, a tennis player, a sometimes drama person (and an always drama queen) and a member of the hand bell choir (it is a wonder I did not get shoved into more lockers with this one on my resume). I was always enrolled in a million activities, but none ever became my passion.

It was not until I was 25 when running really took hold and by that time, according to my husband’s theory, it was already too late. He has a point. He was a champion pole-vaulter and decathlete in high school. Later, he was recruited and competed in the same events at a Division One school. Even now, almost a decade later, my husband can run a 5k with no training faster than people who are in better cardiovascular (although not necessarily physical) shape. Pretty impressive. And it is more than natural talent. He spent his youth playing basketball, running track, lettering in sports and building the muscle memory and athletic ability that will carry him through even out of shape times in his lives.

There seems to be something about those critical years of 13-20, which really make or break an athletic future. You can always pick up a sport after that point, but you are almost guaranteed never to be as good as those who started young. Of course for every example I give, there are a couple who do not fit the bill, who run master’s level races as fast as those who have been racing for years, but the reality is even I will probably never run an 18-minute 5k no matter how hard I train. Yes, I have always been athletic and always played a sport, but never with the same vigor as someone like my husband. And so I will never really be as talented. It just is not going to happen.

Obviously, that is not the only factor. There is also a certain amount of natural talent and body type and drive that factor as well. But I would challenge anyone to find a truly competitive (or even decent) athlete who did not play sports in middle school and high school and even college.

Bearing all this in mind, I am pretty devoted to developing my children’s’ athletic abilities. They can try every activity they want from riding to skating to dancing and soccer, but I hope they will find the one they love. In part it is because, like any parent today, I am worried about obesity and other health issues, but I am also concerned with helping them build that early coordination, sense of competition and love of movement. Physical fitness is just not optional. I don’t care what activity they choose (please run! Please run!), but I do care that they get moving.

Of course, given their parents, it is highly probably that at least one of them will have a penchant for sports. And judging from the way Sammy liked to shake her groove thing, I think she may have found hers already.

As for my own athletic potential, next week I will run a half marathon. Obviously, I would love to run between a 1:38 and 1:43, but my training runs lately have been rough. That may be unrealistic. Still, I am nothing if not ambitious, so there it is. My goal. Stay tuned to next week and see how it all pans out.

Sasha Brown-Worsham is a writer, a mother and an unabashed, unashamed runaholic. Check her progress each week as she trains to qualify for the Boston Marathon.