Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Girls & Sports: When There's Too Much of a Good Thing

I want to go on the record as saying that having girls play sports is an amazingly wonderful thing. Girls learning to be physically and mentally strong, making quick decisions, working as a team and not being afraid to get dirty are all good and positive goals.

However -- as with many things related to today's youth and sports -- things have gotten out of hand. Way out of hand. We've gone beyond promoting all the myriad benefits of being a member of a sports team. And we've gone into a place I like to call, "Stupidville," where, starting at tender ages in elementary school, we're introducing too much competition. Too much stress. Too much insistence on sports specialization. Too many games. Too many practices. Not only does this lead to the complete disruption of the family (no time for healthy family meals, no time for homework, kids going to bed too late, parents on the road all the time playing chauffeur, etc.) but it has serious physical consequences for the youth athletes.

The negative health implications of sports specialization is, in essence, the argument made by a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine piece entitled, "Hurt Girls: What Sports Are Doing to Young Women is Not Pretty." (If I were the copy editor, I would've changed the sub-headline to read, "What Too Much Sports At Too Young An Age is Doing to Young Women is Not Pretty.")

Some excerpts:

-- "The pressure to concentrate on a 'best' sport before even entering middle school -- and to play it year-round -- is bad for all kids. They wear down the same muscle groups day after day. They have no time to rejuvenate, let alone get stronger. By playing constantly, they multiply their risks and simply give themselves too many opportunities to get hurt."

-- A pediatrician, Rebecca Demorest, told the Magazine that when it comes to treating young girl athletes: "They ache and they hurt and they use pain medicine and try to keep on playing. When they finally get to the point they can't play, they come and see me . . . They have a series of nonspecific, overuse injuries that comes down to being worn out. Don't get me wrong. There's a chain of events with boys too. But I see it more with the girls."

-- In the part of the article which discusses attempts to create exercise routines which supposedly help ward off injuries that disproportionately affect female athletes (like catastrophic knee injuries), writer Michael Sokolove said, "Coaches rarely like to give up precious practice time for injury prevention, and often have to be pushed by parents."

-- In a section about "club" teams -- different from town leagues or school-related leagues in that parents have to shell out big bucks for "professional" coaches who take their sport very seriously -- Sokolove wrote: "The club structure is the driving force behind the trend toward early specialization in one sport -- and by extension, a primary cause of injuries. To play multiple sports is, in the best sense, childlike. It's fun. You move on from one good thing to the next. But to specialize conveys a seriousness of purpose. It seems to be leading somewhere -- even if, in fact, the real destination is burnout or injury."

There is a price to be paid for too much of a good thing. And all our kids -- not just our girls -- are paying for it. With their bodies. And it's sucking all the joy out of sports. Think about that the next time someone tries to talk you into signing your grade schooler up for a club team.
Image credit: New York Times.

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