April 21, 2009
Taking the Pressure out of Sports Part I by Mark Hyman
Entering the Sports Maze
Dawna Cobb of Baltimore vividly recalls the summer that her kids' sports became too much. It was in 2000, when she listened as her two sons asked if they could join a travel baseball team. Cobb and her husband, Paul Hulleberg, decided to let the boys have their way, although Anders and Lucas, then 11 and 8, were already playing in a recreational baseball league and on the school lacrosse team. The parents wondered: Maybe three team commitments wouldn't be much more hectic than two?
Looking back, Cobb can laugh. Within weeks the family was near exhaustion. "Our children love sports and so do we. But it got to be ridiculous," she recalls. One especially absurd experience stands out: driving approximately 25 miles on a rainy day to one son's travel-team game, returning home to change into dry clothes, then going back to watch her other son in another game. In all, the boys played 68 games in roughly four months.
Welcome to youth sports in the 21st century. The freckled faces and knobby knees you remember from your days rounding the bases still dot the sports landscape, but just about everything else has changed. Today's athletes start earlier than ever, with kids as young as 2 or 3 taking sports lessons and joining tot leagues by age 5. About 26.1 million children — more than half of all 6- to 17-year-olds — suit up with an organized sports team, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in North Palm Beach, FL.
For parents, there's pressure to get their kids involved in sports at young ages but also confusion about how much is too much and how soon is too soon. Most children can begin playing sports as young as age 5 and competing around age 8, says John Engh, vice president of youth development at the National Alliance for Youth Sports in West Palm Beach, FL. There are a few Tiger Woods-esque children who are ready and willing to compete at age 3, but that's rare, he adds. Still, the lure, however unrealistic, of turning children into pros has some families rushing to enter the sports maze.
Cons & Pros
One indication that the current state of sports participation may be problematic is that 70% of kids in sports leagues hang up their cleats by age 13, according to a study from Michigan State University in East Lansing. Researchers are divided on how to explain the dropouts. Some say attrition is inevitable, that there will be an ebb and flow as children sample many sports and activities. But others view the rush of kids leaving the court or field each year as cause for alarm. Many are walking away, they say, because they're frustrated by ultra-competitive leagues and by coaches and parents who put winning first.
It falls to parents to keep the games in perspective. "Once in a while, a Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky comes along and goes through his career without failing. For the rest of us, the key is enjoying the journey, whether we're winning or losing," says Damon Burton, Ph.D., a professor of physical education who specializes in sports psychology at the University of Idaho in Moscow. We talked to professionals and parents for pointers on how to handle some of the stickier aspects of youth sports.
Check back next week for the continuation of this interesting article by Mark Hyman authur of "Until it Hurts" Beacon Press