Guest Author - Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D, F.A.A.P
We have been incredibly spoiled in New England the last few years between the Patriot’s Super Bowl run and the Red Sox finally winning the World Series. It’s no wonder kids try to emulate the sports heros they see on TV, and parents smile at the notion of that dream coming true for their child. Then we blink and realize it’s just a child’s dream. After all, we know the reality of our kids fulfilling that dream are as likely as finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Or do we?
Do you realize that only 0.03% of high school athletes will make it to the pros? In fact, 99.9% of athletes will never play at the professional level regardless of how good they are. “Youth sports are about building better kids, not building better athletes”, says Dr. Bruce Svare, author of Reforming Sports Before the Clock Runs Out and Director of the National Institute for Sports Reform (www.NISR.ORG). The performance pressure is so extreme on young athletes while in elementary school that 70% are burning out and dropping out of sports by middle school. Moreover, Dr. Svare points out that “athletic brilliance prior to puberty has no relationship to athletic success after puberty”. In fact, some of our greatest sports heros did not even begin their sport until well into the teenage years.
Dave Wohl, Assistant Coach to the Boston Celtics agrees. “Michael Jordan was actually got cut from his high school team”, says Wohl, “and I didn’t start playing basketball until after I was 10”. Coach Wohl notes that there is a huge mismatch in body types before puberty that may give some kids an athletic edge while young that inevitably disappears once their peers catch up to them in growth.
Both Dr. Svare and Coach Wohl feel kids can learn some important life lessons in sports, if the sports are structured correctly. In addition to the many health and fitness benefits, sports teaches kids how to work in a team. Sports teach kids how to push themselves to their best level. And, sports teach kids that failure happens at times but that life goes on.
It’s natural for parents and coaches to want children to try their best. But kids are instead being told that their best is not good enough. Parents rationalize that it is acceptable for their child to be benched so that their team can win. And, we turn a blind eye on the bad behavior and poor sportsmanship of other coaches and parents, all in the name of winning.
Coach Wohl is amazed how many parents ask him what is wrong with their young athlete because their child is not focused enough. He fondly remembers his dad’s comments after his games as a child: “Did you play as hard as you can? Then hold your head up”.
It’s no wonder the injury rate and burn-out rates for youth sports are so high – kids are being pushed mentally and physically in directions they are just not wired to go while still so young. Their bodies and souls are being asked to perform at a level really meant for much older kids – high school and beyond. Before that point, the emphasis should be on fun, skill building and teamwork. It’s like trying to race the Indy500 in a VW Beetle or a Toyota Camry. Sure, it will run and may even win but then the engine will be permanently shot in the process.
We seem to accept when our children express a dislike for certain foods, TV shows, books, or even friends; but we often fail to accept our child may not like a certain sport. Childhood is really a journey of exploration and it’s actually the child who has the map; we are merely guides. There’s a world of sports and activities to choose from – but we need to remember that it’s our child who is participating in that activity, not us. Even more so, we need to remember that just because a child is good at an activity, does not mean that he will want to continue that activity or just do that activity.
Reforming youth sports will not happen over night but we can make a huge amount of positive strides but just changing our own expectations and behavior. I truly believe that when parents learn to just encourage their children without pushing, the clock will start to slow. When parents learn to enjoy watching their child learn new skills and new found confidence, the clock will slow even more. But the clock won’t truly stop and reset until our children start having fun again. It could happen today and you’re the one to take the first step.