Who Wins?

Thirty-five years ago any child who was active and who lived in a town with a half-decent recreational sports program could easily become a three-sport athlete. OK. to be honest, any boy, and a few girls who lived 35 years ago experienced this, since Title IX had only recently passed.

Sports were broken up into seasons, and only a hardcore few participated in a single sport on a year-round basis; they were the few kids we all knew who, at younger ages – and then I mean somewhere around the start of middle school – became obsessed by their sport. For everyone else, when it got cold you went inside to play basketball or hockey. The snow melted (if you were that far north) and it was time to play baseball, or lacrosse (in some states). Summer came and it was time for camps, swim teams, or tennis lessons. The chill of approaching fall would come and the time arrived for soccer or football. The point is not about the specific sports, but that in every region of the country kids changed what sports they were playing with the seasons.

And like the seasons, eventually the cycle repeated until the end of middle school when kids would figure out on their own – and I emphasize, on their own – that they really liked participating in sports. Kids either tried out for their season-specific sports teams in high school, or they decided the competitive sporting life was not for them and they turned to other activities available in high school, from chess to the year book, performing in band to performing in plays, or even intramural sports.

There were jocks, yes, but specialization, the pressure of excelling in a single sport, did not appear until at least middle school, and still kids were able to be three sport athletes, even through college in many cases.

Today? The subtle pressure to have your child specialize, to be labeled one kind of athlete or another, comes as early as elementary school. In California it could be as a soccer payer. In Minnesota a hockey player. In Florida a swimmer, or tennis player. Every region of the country has its own little niche, and few corners of the country are immune to this epidemic.

“So what’s the big deal?” you ask. “So the kid gets really good at soccer. Doesn’t that increase his or her chances of getting a college scholarship?” Yes, it’s a rat race out there, the competition to get into college is fiercer than ever, and we’re told over and over that our kids will amount to nothing if they don’t get into college.

But we’re missing the point. When it comes to the information age, college is the new high school. The education our kids get in college is what they’re going to need. Exposure to other students, to other cultures, to other ways of thinking, is what educators talk about when they talk about college, and education in general.

So in pushing our kids to perform in sport at such young ages, we’re exposing them to real baggage that they’re going to carry around for years. Reminders of how we pushed them will be far more obvious than hurt feelings, or blown parenting moments requiring psychotherapy.

Any seasoned coach will tell you a child who is a multi-sport athlete when they are young is a much better prepared athlete later on in high school, or in college. Ironically, the pressure on coaches from overly enthusiastic parents to have competitive teams – in other words winning teams – means many coaches and leagues subtly undercut this notion that they want to promote multi-sport athletes. Take time away from one team to participate in different sport and your child risks losing his or her position on that competitive team to a child willing to dedicate 100 percent of his or her time to that team.

Many orthopedic doctors will tell you they have seen an increase in the number of repetitive motion injuries that our children are suffering today, because they are specializing in sports at far too young of an age, which is creating an entire generation of athletes who will later be hobbled by serious joint issues, in some cases as young as their late 20s or early 30s.

This does not even address the other more insidious problem of brain injuries, the study of which is in its infancy. Concussions in football have been in the news for a decade now. Research is only just beginning into the long term effect of sub-concussive blows sustained over and over by athletes, the small 15 mile-an-hour car crashes athletes in contact sports experience numerous times in a practice, countless times a week, compounded by games, and repeated over and over, hundreds of times in a season at least.

Children are pushed to perform at ever higher levels at ever younger ages, where their bodies simply are not developed enough to absorb this physical impact, forget about high-speed, aggressive impact delivered with the intention of lodging loose a ball, or puck by an athlete with anger issues.

When we were kids, pond hockey was played without pads. Pick-up football games were played without pads. Sandlot baseball games were played without helmets. Street soccer was played without shin guards. Except for that one kid who lived in the neighborhood, and would usually take the hitting a little too far, that one kid who forced you to learn how to evade getting hit for fear or being pummeled, all of the kids played intensely…to a point.

But now, wildly cheering and overly enthusiastic parents over-orchestrate every move in the lives of our children. Gone are pick-up games. There’s no time. Everything is planned, and organized, and if it’s not well organized then an incensed parent steps in and organizes it, creating a league to provide structure and an environment where the kids can learn proper techniques, and excel…
all before the age of six.

Who wins here? No one. Who suffers? Our kids will, but we can’t see that yet, and it’s easy to not address something when we cannot see an immediate negative effect. Who knows, maybe there will be no negative effects at all, but some people who are much smarter than I am seem to think there will be.

Ironically, if you do think this is a problem, the antidote is so close to the source it’s scary. It’s us: parents. We could easily put the brakes on this run-away train. But who is going to be the first to take their kid out of the competitive travel team that he or she just tried out and qualified for? I know I will have a hard time being that parent.