Monday, August 6, 2007

Because No Age is Too Young to Pressure Child-Athletes

All right. I’m willing to admit that the headline may be overly harsh. But I’ve about reached my limit with what author Brooke de Lench dubbed, “a cut-throat, high-stakes business run by adults,” otherwise known as the youth sports industrial complex.

The front page of yesterday’s New York Times offered yet another piece of evidence that youth sports in this country is spiraling out of control . . . this coming from a person who has coached her daughter in soccer, whose husband has coached his sons' soccer and baseball teams and who has three kids in various sports programs. In explaining why children as young as 9 are now seeing sports psychologists, journalist Bill Pennington wrote:

“The idea that mental coaching can help the youngest athletes has pervaded
the upper reaches of the country’s zealous youth sports culture. In the pursuit
of college scholarships and top spots on premier travel clubs, the families of
young athletes routinely pay for personal strength coaches, conditioning
coaches, specialized skill coaches like pitching or hitting instructors,
nutritionists and recruiting consultants. Now, the personal sports psychologist
has joined the entourage.”

Pennington added:

“But many sports psychologists, including those who see young athletes, say
they wonder if the treatment is not overkill in a youth sports landscape
bursting with excess.

‘On the one hand, it’s foolish not to teach kids mental skills they may need,’ said Daniel Gould, a sports psychologist who is also the director of Michigan State’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. ‘On the flip side, is it just contributing to the professionalism of childhood? Because these kids aren’t playing for the New York Yankees. And worse, I worry that some parents are doing it just because their neighbor did it for his kid.’”

In her book, “Home Team Advantage,” de Lench confirmed my suspicions that cultivating very young one-sport athletes is not good for them:

“The emphasis on specialization in today’s youth sports may tempt you into
buying into the idea – one that many youth sports organizations and coaches
actively promote – that your child will be unable to attain success or even make
a high school or college team without specializing, playing on a select team,
playing year round, and attending special sports camps in the summer; that more
(more teams, more practices, more intense and competitive games) and earlier
(travel teams at age seven) is better. The fact, however, is that in youth
sports the opposite is true:
less is more.”
But sometimes fighting the system, particularly when you’re just one family making some waves, feels like you’re trying to hold back the tide with a teaspoon of sand. Although I’ve asked my town’s youth soccer league to consider having an in-town soccer league for third graders, it apparently wasn’t in the cards. So I had a choice: Either sign up my twin third graders – who both love soccer and want to play – for travel soccer and prepare to sacrifice weekends as The Spouse and I drive them to games all over eastern Massachusetts, or take them out of soccer. (In my town, by third grade, it’s travel soccer or nothing.) However because the kids really want to play soccer, The Spouse and I agreed, much to our chagrin, to schlep our twins around this fall, in addition to driving our first grader to his in-town games.

However we drew the line at having our nearly 9-year-olds tryout for elite “club” soccer teams, which not only are quite pricey, but require a full year’s worth of commitment and a ton of time. Will this decision not to enroll them hurt their soccer chances in the future? Will our decision to refrain from signing up our third grade son for fall baseball (because just playing in the spring simply isn't enough) hurt his baseball development? We hope not. But at least we hope it’ll give them a little bit more of a chance to enjoy the “child” part of their “childhood.”

E-mail Meredith

(Image from the New York Times.)

No comments: