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Jewish World Review
Sept. 12, 2007
/ 29 Elul, 5767
Keeping sports fun for kids
Kids and sports. Let the angst begin.
"As millions of kids take to fields, courts and rinks this fall, as many as half to two-thirds are destined to quit sports by their teens, largely because they're not having fun, studies show. A trend toward specialization pressure for kids to play just one competitive sport year-round is one reason, researchers say."
That's according to a recent article by Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal.
She notes that even for many children as young as 8 or 9, forget local, fun leagues of, say, soccer in the fall, baseball in the spring and maybe a little swim team in the summer. More and more kids, even in the third and fourth grades, are quitting the once-typical variety of sports to specialize, intensely, in one key sport. Sports psychologists even report seeing more and more very young clients.
And whether moms and dads are orchestrating or just enabling the intensity, we parents play a big part in how we push our kids today.
For starters, typically these children are on "travel teams." Which, as the name suggests, means the team "travels" sometimes hours or even by plane to meet and play another team of its caliber. (It seems the other local, recreational teams aren't good enough.) I increasingly know parents who literally have no weekend life outside of shuttling their kids to travel tournaments.
Are these kids any more proficient athletically, or more likely to be professional athletes, than the jocks I knew when I was a kid? No. But this sports culture on steroids (so to speak) was unknown when I was young.
I have a good friend, a mom of five, who has several kids who love sports but one in particular who is outstanding. She says that when the local soccer coach comes to talk to her about "travel soccer" for her young son, she runs and hides. She refuses to totally disrupt her family life for the travel-team schedule, and notes that her child is not going to be a professional soccer player and that there are plenty of local recreational teams where he can have a lot of fun and do well in a sport he enjoys long before he can even think about being on a high-school team.
Lest anyone think this woman is a sports neophyte, she is a former champion high-school swimmer who excelled in her sport long before Title IX was all the rage, and who is adamant about the value of fitness for her kids.
It's just that, unlike a lot of parents, she has things in perspective. Her hope is that her kids will make a lifetime out of fitness and fun and all the great benefits of being good at a sport they enjoy. The evidence suggests that she's the one on the right track.
Shellenbarger writes that "a recent focus-group study of 67 school officials, coaches, parents and teens" found that the stress of specializing in a sport is "linked to higher injury risk, reduced motivation and burnout."
What's the point of that?
I'm all for sports involvement. My kids are not intense about sports, but they are active and they enjoy them. I don't have any sports prodigies in my family, and I'm not sure what I would do if I did. (News flash: Folks, most parents don't have sports prodigies in their families.) I also think it's really important to be somewhat "good" at a sport, but only because some level of proficiency brings enjoyment, and, hopefully, a lifelong commitment to fitness.
Myself, I'm a decent alpine skier, and that makes it a lot of fun. It also makes me want to stay in shape so I can continue to enjoy my favorite sport. When I hit 40, I took up serious weightlifting, largely so I could continue to perform well in the sport I love. Of course, the weightlifting had benefits far beyond skiing.
That's what I want for my kids. A love for fitness and doing well because it brings personal satisfaction and health. The evidence suggests that specializing in year-round swimming at age 9 Shellenbarger's opening example does just the opposite. It leads to frustration and burnout for our kids.
Parents will say that intense sports, even at very young ages, keep kids out of trouble, or teach them skills they might not otherwise learn. Look, I'm sure there are some benefits. I'm just also convinced we really let down our kids when we take the "play" out of "play ball!"
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