How to Raise an Athlete: The 3 to 6 Year Window of Opportunity

How to Raise an Athlete: The 3 to 6 Year Window of Opportunity

There is a whole array of very specific things that can be done to refine a child’s basic movement skills after the toddler years have passed.

This is when children need to make a number of important discoveries about their bodies, what body parts can do, the space that they occupy. timing, the way objects move, accommodating other people as they move and remembering rules. 

Most importantly, children need to learn all of these things through physical, real life experiences. 

It’s easy for parents to feel a little overconfident about their child’s physical skills after the first years of life.

Unlike intellectual and language skills, physical skills develop pretty much without guidance during the first years of life. If parents give babies enough freedom to move around, food, love and a safe environment, they will learn to sit, pull themselves up against furniture, walk and bend over to pick things up from the floor and the parents won’t remember doing anything specific to train them or teach them.

During the first years, this process is basically programmed into a baby’s DNA.

In older children, however, physical development is no longer on automatic mode. 

The problem is that most parents are so used to seeing their children’s physical skills appear as out of nowhere during the first years of life, that they don’t realize that, once the children are around 3 years old, things no longer happen automatically.

Children who are between three and six years old absolutely need their parents to encourage and teach them or else they won’t refine the basic movement skills that developed when they were babies and toddlers.

It is well within the ability of little three-, four- and five-year-olds to master all of the fundamental movement skills that are the basic building blocks that they will need one day in primary school for learning any kind of organised sport.

But, if they don’t get the opportunity and guidance that they need for practising important movement patterns to the point where these patterns mature and become automated for them, they won’t grow into truly competent movers.

It is crucial for pre-schoolers to develop the fundamental movement skills in age-appropriate ways, or else they will not be able to compete by the time that they are seven years old. 

Look at a group of three-year-olds on the playground.

You’ll notice only slight differences in the way they move, how confident they are and how much they enjoy themselves. But, look at that same group three years later, when they are six years old, and some of them will be much stronger, fitter, more agile, better coordinated and more competent than others.

The problem is that the other children see what their friends can do and they expect to also be able to do it.

They get disheartened when they cannot compete and keep up and they give up on sports altogether, or at the very least lose faith in their own abilities.

They look at the competent movers and think: “I’m clearly not as talented as the other kids. The sports scene is clearly not for me. I’m not an athlete” and they take those thoughts as facts.

What they don’t understand is that their friends and those friends’ parents have invested a great deal of time and effort over a number of years into learning and perfecting their skills.

Children used to develop these skills in streets, parks and backyards.

A few decades ago, older siblings and friends from around the neighbourhood typically showed little ones the ropes during spontaneous, impromptu play sessions that they struck up on any dirt road or lawn that was large enough.

This kind of freedom is a luxury that today’s children don’t enjoy.

What’s more, well-intentioned but ill-informed parents are placing immense pressure on modern-day preschools to impress them with the use of electronic gadgets and “academic” lessons that are desk-bound.

As a result, less and less emphasis is being placed on important things like play and the development of sport skills.

Parents who know better, do better.


The key to making sure that your child won’t end up sitting on the sidelines by the time he is older is for you as the parent to be as proactive as possible when he is younger. 

Find out what a child of his age should be able to do and play with your child in age-appropriate ways.

Some of the games that you play should focus on developing strength, agility, coordination, speed and balance, so that your child will grow up being physically strong, steady and quick on his feet.

Others need to be aimed at helping him feel more comfortable in his body, with good timing, a good sense of direction and position, the ability to sense and coordinate the two sides of his body, use a dominant eye, hand and foot and navigate himself in space.

And then, of course, there should be games that focus on teaching and refining the fundamental movement skills, such as leaping, jumping, catching a ball, kicking a ball and so on. 

When your little one struggles with a certain game that should be within his ability, find out which skills he is expected to use for playing that particular game. Then target that skill by playing other games that also involve using that same skill.

The key to helping your child reach his fullest potential is to practise his weaker skills and build them up as soon as you identify them, without him realizing that the fun is focused on helping him.

The Practica Programme guides parents through this process.

All of the necessary activities and the skills involved are listed in Group One for every year group from two to six years of age.

Regardless of how naturally gifted they may be, our under-sevens need guidance and practice for them to grow into athletes – much like children need to practise speaking a language for them to become fluent in that language. 

Guided play the only way for today’s children to grow into truly competent movers.

This post is a rough excerpt from an interview that Redi Tlhabi did with Lizette van Huyssteen on TotTalk. Click HERE to listen to the full podcast.