Youth track and field (sometimes called "athletics") boasts many events and competitions, around the world and all year round. Its emphasis on speed and personal best records appeals to kids with an individualist, independent streak. Is your child interested in getting started with the classic sport of youth track and field?
The basics: Track and field events include short-distance races (sprints, relays, hurdles), middle distance races (800 meters to two miles), distance events (2,000 to 10,000 meter events, as well as the steeplechase and marathon), throwing events (hammer, shot put, discus, javelin), jumping events (high jump, long jump, triple jump, pole vault). Some athletes compete in a series of seven (heptathlon) or ten (decathlon) different events. Find details on each of these events at About.com Track and Field.
Age kids can start: Kids can start participating in short fun runs and other running events as young as 5 years old. USA Track & Field's Junior Olympics program starts with an 8-and-under division (see below).
Skills needed/used: Cardiorespiratory fitness; motor skills and coordination. Different youth track and field events require different skills (such as upper body strength or endurance).
Best for kids who are: Self-starting, detail-oriented (able to incorporate small changes in technique), willing to put in long hours of training.
Season/when played: Traditionally, interscholastic competition happens in the spring (with cross-country races taking place in the fall). Club team events usually take place in late spring or summer, following the school competition schedule. But as with so many other sports, the season has expanded to a year-round calendar that includes indoor events.
Team or individual? Both. Youth track and field athletes race in individual events and/or as part of a relay team, on behalf of a school or club team.
Levels: In the elementary and middle years, schools and parks and rec departments may offer youth track and field programs, and most high schools sponsor teams for interscholastic competition. The U.S. governing body for track and field, USA Track & Field, has a Junior Olympics program with six two-year age divisions (starting with 8 and under and ranging up to 17-18 years).
Elite track and field athletes compete in the summer Olympic Games (every four years), the IAAF World Outdoor Championships (every other year, in odd-numbered years) and the IAAF World Indoor Championships (even-numbered years).
Appropriate for kids with special needs: Yes. The Special Olympics has a strong track and field program (known as athletics).
Fitness factor: High. Track and field is based on skills that kids can do and master easily: running, jumping, and throwing. Joining a club or team will help them improve skills and build endurance. Plus, for many running events, kids can train on their own without any special facility or equipment.
Equipment: Proper footwear is required for all events; some events require other equipment, such as pole vault poles. For training, youth track and field athletes need comfortable, lightweight clothing, plus gear for rain or other inclement weather. Team members often need to purchase uniforms and/or warm-up suits.
Costs: Individual event registration fees range from free to $20 or more. Joining a club may cost as little as $15 and up to $250 or more, depending on the type of club. Many clubs also require membership in USA Track and Field or the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), at a cost of $15 to $20 a year. School teams are usually free or have a nominal participation fee. For both types of teams, fundraising is often required to help cover the costs of special events, or tournament travel.
Time commitment required: Clubs and teams usually require practices two to three times a week, or more for advanced athletes. A meet can last an afternoon, a day, or an entire weekend.
Potential for injury: Medium. Overuse injuries are possible if a child specializes too early or trains too intensively. Outdoor training and meets mean a risk of dehydration and heat stress. You can get a tip sheet on preventing running injuries from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.
How to find track and field programs:
- USA Track & Field club search
- Athletics Canada club finder
- AAU Athletics program
- Active.com's searchable database of fun runs, races, and other events
Associations and governing bodies:
If your child likes track and field, also try: Swimming, cross-country running and skiing, hiking, rock climbing.