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.