Friends and acquaintances who know my track background frequently ask me, "How do I get my child started in track & field?" Because track & field programs are not as ubiquitous as soccer or basketball programs, it may not be as easy as going to the nearest recreation center or Boys & Girls club. Yet youth track & field, or age group track & field, as it is called in the sport, is a thriving activity nationwide and most communities have track clubs for kids. It's just a matter of knowing how to find them.
National age group track and field competition starts with the Primary age group (8 and under in AAU-Amateur Athletic Union meets). But, while there are many children that train and compete seriously from this age, track is a very forgiving and flexible sport: Kids who get a later start are not missing out on crucial skill-building years as they are in other sports. A latecomer to some sports has a very difficult time of catching up on sport-specific skills, whereas much of track & field is doing what kids do every day anyway, which is running, jumping and throwing.
My husband played a lot of baseball and basketball as a child and did not join a track team until high school. Several years later he received a full scholarship and eventually went on to the Olympic Games. Thus, parents don't have to rush to sign up their youngster to participate in an organized track & field program. It is accommodating to newcomers of all ages.
While there is no minimum age at which a child can begin, he or she should be old enough to understand basic rules of competition, such as staying in her own lane or not going beyond the take-off board in the long jump. Of course a young child will be limited in the number of events that are appropriate for him. Hurdles, long distance events, and most of the field events would not be recommended for a small child. But a child of almost any age might enjoy the 100 meter dash and the long jump.
A great way to begin the sport is to look for kids' fun runs that are often held in conjunction with local road races. The distance might be as short as a quarter mile and parents can often accompany their child on the course. All-comers meets are also excellent starters. These are relaxed track & field meets which have events for competitors of all ages. Oftentimes, pre-registration is not required and you can sign up when you get there. Check the websites of local running clubs (try www.rrca.org, the website for the Road Runners Clubs of America, for a link to your local RRCA club which could be a good resource for kids' fun runs and provides links to other local running and track clubs) and track & field clubs to find out if there are any all-comers meets in your area. They are a great way for a child to find out if they enjoy competing in the sport before deciding whether to make a commitment to join a club.
Many kids who participate in track & field do so as part of a club. Among the benefits to joining a club are to get coaching, be part of a team, and gain the financial support that a club can provide through sponsorship and group fundraising. It also means, however, sacrificing your flexibility in terms of practice time and location. You may also end up relinquishing control over which events in which your child gets to participate.
But although there is team scoring in track & field, fundamentally it is an individual sport. Kids can participate and compete at all levels as unattached athletes, meaning they aren't part of a club or team.