During my KWF year, we had a seminar with Richard Pound, an IOC bigwig and head of the World Anti-Doping Agency. We had lots of guests that night, mostly people from the university’s athletic community. He spoke about the upcoming Olympics and drug testing, and it was all very interesting. The discussion period skated off into sports in general, and kids and sports, and I said something like, “You know, I’d like my daughter to play sports, to get the good things out of it. The physical fitness, the leadership–”
I was interrupted by the coach of a major women’s sport at the U. “Excuse me,” she said, “but I haven’t seen a leader on my teams in more than 10 years.” She went on to explain: Today’s collegiate athlete was yesterday’s child athlete, and child athletics is, overwhelmingly, the parents’ game. When the coach was a child, she went on, you played sports by getting your ball and going around the neighborhood, knocking on doors and getting a team together. You made your own rules, decided whether the manhole cover was home base or out of bounds, and played together. You learned arbitration skills by being your own referees, leadership by being your own coaches. Organized competitions didn’t come until junior high.
“Today,” she went on, “my players have been dragged around by their parents starting in kindergarten. They’re very docile, but I have to tell them everything. When to warm up, when to cool down, when to get a drink of water, what uniform to wear. If I don’t, they just stand there. They have no idea how to take the initiative.”
When Kate was 5, I enrolled her in a summer soccer league. She seemed to enjoy it for a while, but when the novelty wore off, it was just drudgery. She liked to go to games because of the concession stand and her friends, but her attention wasn’t there. And who could blame her? It’s fun to run around kicking a ball with your friends. It’s no fun to play organized soccer, on a schedule, in blistering heat, when you’re 5. I decided not to enroll her for the fall season, and to let her tell me what — and whether — she wanted to play.
So far, we’re still in the run-through-the-sprinkler-and-ride-bikes phase. Fine with me.
Last summer, when I was editing sports copy, I handled a story about knee injuries in young women athletes. Apparently ACL tears are routine in high school now, and this is invariably chalked up to female anatomy — wider hips mean more stress on the knee’s lateral flexing. Female athletes past puberty, especially those in sports like soccer or basketball, must work out with weights to strengthen their quadriceps and hamstrings if they want to avoid ACL injuries.
I tried to think back to my own high school, which was no slouch in the girls-athletics department, and how many girls I remember going around on crutches. Can’t think of any, but my memory could be faulty.
Also last summer, when I was watching ESPN as part of my continuing education, I saw a piece on Tommy John surgery in players barely out of Little League. Tommy John surgery is named for the pitcher who first had the reconstructive elbow procedure — while he was a major leaguer. Pitchers whose voices were still changing said, “I’ll just have Tommy John if I have a problem.”
Now comes this New York Times piece today, on young athletes falling apart the way old athletes do — with injuries that only come from overuse. A sample passage:
In his office in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. Andrews hands the parents of new patients a piece of chalk and points to a blackboard in the corner.
“I say, ‘Write down when your child started playing his sport, how many teams he’s played for, what camps he went to, for how many years, what private instructors he’s seen, what championships he won, what his stats were, all that stuff,’ ” Dr. Andrews said. “Then I walk out of the room. I come back in and they’ve filled up the blackboard. They’re proud.
“And I say, ‘You all know why he’s here seeing me?’ And I point to the blackboard. That’s when the light bulb goes off.”
I think about what I’ve been reading about getting into good colleges, which used to reward what’s called “well-balanced” kids — smart, plays a sport or three and volunteers at the soup kitchen. Now, top schools want the “well-imbalanced” kid — smart enough, but an Olympic swimmer, and forget about volunteering, because you don’t have time when you’re an Olympic swimmer.
Overuse injuries, the NYT article points out, are not just because of too much time playing, but too much time playing just one sport, instead of running around with your friends playing soccer, football and baseball, all in one day.
Being “well-imbalanced,” that is — the Tiger Woods effect. All the chips on soccer, or basketball, or whatever.
I remember another story I handled last year, about a young basketball player whose team of adult “supporters” — which includes his parents, but also a minister, coaches and maybe even an agent, but I can’t remember — are grooming him to be drafted by the NBA either right out of high school or very soon after. They’re looking for a college that will help him achieve that goal, i.e., not finishing college.
I ask you.
Read the story.
Randy said on February 22, 2005 at 9:43 am
Here in the great white north, we play a game called curling during the winter, perhaps some of you have heard of it.
At my home club, we have a program to introduce kids to the game. Very quickly it becomes less about teaching the game and more about cherry-picking kids with “potential” for an elite development program.
This has skewed the expectations for many kids. Since the elite program has limited space, some kids try for it and get rejected. Quite often they quit the sport entirely, branding themselves failures (at the age of twelve).
Curiously, neither their parents nor the program coordinator do anything to help the kids put this in perspective. They just let them walk away and carry the self-imposed (?) shame.
Danny said on February 22, 2005 at 11:06 am
I am glad that my parents let me be concerning playing of organized sports. I ended up playing a lot of sports, but it was my choice. OTOH, I do wish I had gotten exposed to these choices at a younger age. By the time I found my favorite (wrestling), it was too late to develop to the competitive level at which I wished to participate. Perhaps a little less of a laissez-faire approach would have been better. Just something to keep in mind.
But I do wholeheartedly agree that fun is the key and goal.
Whitcomb said on February 22, 2005 at 6:36 pm
My son was 6 when he joined a soccer team. During games, he and a couple of pals would kick the ball around for a while in no particular direction, then sit down in the middle of the field to talk about it. Then they might run off to the bathroom or maybe the hot dog stand or, in my son’s case, go sit on his mom’s lap for a bit.
This did not go over at all with his coach, a real horse’s patoot who seemed to think that yelling at 5- and 6-year-olds would turn them into Pele. I asked this guy to tone it down. Guess how far I got with him.
Baseball proved to be my boy’s sport, and he was lucky to have a great coach (no, that wasn’t me) who had his head screwed on right and didn’t put up with any crap from the parents.
deb said on February 22, 2005 at 9:35 pm
as the mother of 11- and 14-year-old boys who’ve played team soccer, volleyball, softball, baseball and basketball, i can tell you that it’s not at all unusual to have kids who consider themselves failures in a given sport — or to be completely burned out — at 12. in these parts, the big thing is “club” or “elite” teams, which requires regular travel not only to distant cities but distant STATES. when a kid we know played on a select baseball team, his family was unable to take any summer vacation whatsoever because they were busy traveling all over the country for his games. his uniforms alone cost $600. the kicker? this kid was in third grade.
my kids haven’t been approached to play select teams, but if they were, i would refuse on principle. they have a hard enough time just having fun on their school/rec/YMCA teams, because so many of the parent coaches are such insufferable, win-at-any-cost assholes.
basset said on February 22, 2005 at 10:00 pm
I agree completely. My son is fifteen – big, strong kid in good health – and will never play baseball because for the last nine or ten years it’s been too late for him to start.
There’s nowhere he can go to learn the game; the better players were picked for higher levels long ago, the ones who don’t quite have the skills to advance have been dropping out, and the game has passed him by.
Going out for the high school team is not an option – those coaches are too busy trying to win, they don’t have time to teach anyone how to play. It’s not about the game any more, it’s about the wins and the losses and the travel team and the all-star game and weeding kids out at every level, dividing them into successes and failures along the way.
james gauuan said on February 22, 2005 at 10:16 pm
I helped my best friend’s little league team for two years. What a joke. My best friend was really no better. Shoved aside the kids without hyperdriven parents, sucked up to those that were children of nutcases, and got pissed at me for telling him his son needed to sit because he was acting like a diva. My biggest joy was teaching an otherwise normal kid how to play the game. I say otherwise because these kids thought they were defective because they were not pampered and spoiled like the baby barry bonds. I have heard other coaches say that these kids were not worth coaching because they had no futures. I loved it when one my underdogs thanked me for helping them learn how to play and win. And all of these kids had great parents. They appreciated what I did.
claudia said on February 23, 2005 at 8:08 am
the first year my son wanted to play little league, the league organizers couldn’t find a father to volunteer to coach. i was a single parent at the time and decided that i would rather spend my afternoons/evenings outside with the kids than at home cleaning; that we could eat pb&j sandwiches for supper a couple nights a week. so i volunteered. my team won, maybe, half their games. the fathers who showed up at practices/games to help soon learned that we were doing things MY way, which was, everyone got a chance to be the pitcher, everyone got a chance to be up, and there were no stars. my team had fun. my son was proud of me. i had a great time. and for years afterward, i had boys call me “coach” when they saw me at the mall. they’re called “games” for a reason…it’s supposed to be fun.
Danny said on February 23, 2005 at 10:06 am
Good for you, Claudia. My dad did the same thing for my little league team. Everyone got to play at least half of every game. It drove the jerky parents insane, but we had fun and we happened to also when the championship.
Connie said on February 23, 2005 at 12:18 pm
My now 17 year old daughter played years of community league soccer with great joy and no skill. We were lucky to be in two communities where the leagues emphasized learning and playing and having fun rather than competing. It was a great experience.
She just completed her junior season of swim team and loves every minutes of it. Much to the amazement of her unathletic father and mother we have a kid who wears a varsity letter jacket. Of course I don’t remember my school having any girl’s sports teams.
We support in making her own choices about sports.
deb said on February 23, 2005 at 10:20 pm
connie, you are lucky indeed to have found a league for your daughter that emphasizes learning a sport and enjoying over winning every game. our kids’ school starts competitive sports at fifth grade. at an athletic committee meeting a while back, one father — whose kids aren’t even old enough to play yet — argued that coaches should not be expected to teach fifth-graders the fundamentals because, for god’s sake, these kids are already 10 years old and should have experience in these sports OR THEY SHOULDN’T BE PLAYING AT ALL. i fucking ask you.