For some kids, sports are a way of life from a very young age — think of the famous video of a 2-year-old Tiger Woods swinging a club almost as tall as he is on The Mike Douglas Show. Not every child will turn out to be Tiger, but parents can introduce a few basic sports skills through backyard play. We spoke with several local coaches in search of fun exercises for 4- and 5-year-olds that may help later if those same children decide to participate in athletics. Along with their drills, the coaches also offered some advice: Keep the mood light, because sports are supposed to be fun — for parent and child.
One of the best ways to start a young child with a soccer ball is to disguise the drills into some kind of story, says Andrew McIntosh, director of camps for the Richmond Kickers. At ages 4 and 5, the primary concern is ensuring that children are laughing, having fun and learning, not necessarily technique and accuracy.
One of the stories McIntosh teaches during camps is called the traffic-light game, which can be easily played in a backyard setting. Parents have three different color cards — green, yellow and red — and the children are taught to move around with their "car," which is actually the soccer ball. Parents hold up one card at a time to signify "go, slow down or stop," with the child kicking the ball to follow the traffic signals.
Another simple drill is for parents to stand across from their child with their legs spread apart and have the child kick the ball between their legs and then crawl through. Or gather some empty cans and set them up around the yard and let your child kick the ball to try and knock them down. Encouraging kids to use the inside and outside of their feet, as opposed to the top of their feet, is also a good skill to incorporate, says Mark Murphy, director of youth programs at RISE Soccer.
Tennis is a fun and entertaining game for kids to try out in the backyard or driveway with a parent. Learning how to hold a racket and hit a ball at the same time can be a little too hard for the youngest beginners, so a good substitute for the tennis ball is a balloon, says John DiNardi, president of the Tennis Academy of Virginia. Bouncing a balloon up and down on a racket or hitting it back and forth with a parent slows down the required reaction time.
"Upsies and downsies" is an exercise that Damian Sancilio, partner and director of tennis at Courtside West, uses with his youngest pupils. By hitting the ball up and down on a racket, or down against pavement, his young charges are taught the basics of handling a ball and racket.
Since 4- and 5-year-olds are an especially active bunch, have them channel some of that energy into jumping or shuffling back and forth, Sancilio says. Being bouncy and nimble are great skills that will come in handy when kids are ready to hit the court.
When kids are young, there's only a limited amount of information parents can teach them about the game of golf, but some of the basic skills include the grip, the stance and the swing, says Janet Phillips, 2007 LPGA Northeast Professional of the Year and co-owner of Windy Hill Sports Complex in Midlothian. She also emphasizes the importance of young children having golf clubs that fit them length-wise. "They should be sized for little hands and little strength," says Phillips, who recommends starting with a 7-iron. (A U.S. Kids Golf version of the club runs about $29.)
Parents can create targets in the backyard to let their child practice hitting the ball in a specific direction. Targets such as tin cans or buckets are great because they make noise when the ball makes contact, and kids begin to associate the swing with the hit.
Alternating between backward and forward swings works best for little ones, Phillips adds. Meredith Roberts, youth-program coordinator and teaching professional at First Tee Richmond, uses a game called "zoo golf" to help teach her youngest students the basics. To hit like an elephant, kids swing the club with one arm. To hit like a bat (the kind in caves), they swing with their eyes closed, and to hit like a flamingo, kids stand on one leg and swing.
For little sluggers, Dan Horn, owner of the Richmond Baseball Academy East complex in Mechanicsville, recommends a series of drills involving catching throws, pop-ups and grounders that can be executed in the backyard with simply a ball and glove. Each drill follows the same simple concept: keeping the glove open and stepping to the ball. "The glove has two eyes," Horn says, pointing to the back of an open glove.
He says that young kids have a tendency to keep the glove closed until the ball is near. Instead, he helps them keep it open until the ball has made contact, when they can close it with the off hand. "Don't blind or twist the glove," Horn reminds.
Kevin Light, an instructor at the Richmond Baseball Academy East who was drafted by the Washington Nationals last March, says that the key to a fun experience and avoiding injury is learning the right mechanics at a young age. "Just get out and throw and get used to the game," he says.
For parents, Light warns them to not rush their kids. Horn adds, "The biggest downfall to kids losing interest in baseball is dads pushing their kids and not having patience. Have patience, build confidence, and the child will develop."
Parents may want to consider some simple driveway drills with their kids before sending them out on the hardwood. Sterling Dickerson, director of basketball at U-Turn Sports Performance Academy, has several suggestions, and the only requirement is an indoor/outdoor basketball, 27.5 inches or 28.5 inches for small children, he says.
First, Dickerson recommends getting the child used to dynamic stretches, such as walking lunges. After getting loose and limber, dribbling and passing should be the focus of initial drills — not shooting, as small children are bound to develop incorrect shooting habits due to their lack of strength.
Dickerson suggests simply dribbling in place with one hand at a time and then crossing over (right to left and left to right in front of the body). Next, walk and then run while dribbling. The parent can add some competition to the mix by shadowing the child as a defender or by challenging them to see who can complete the most dribbles in a row.
Two-handed bounces and chest passes back and forth from parent to child can also be executed while stationary or in motion.
Dickerson's No. 1 tip, however, is to have fun and not let the game get too complicated. "Kids today grow up too fast already," he says. "Are they really the next Michael Jordan or Candace Parker? You really won't know this until high school, so we got some time."