Taking the Pressure out of Sports

Experts weigh in on what parents can do to make sports safe and fun for young athletes.

Entering the Sports Maze

Child sports

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Dawna Cobb of Baltimore vividly recalls the summer that her kids' sports became too much. It was in 2000, when she listened as her two sons asked if they could join a travel baseball team. Cobb and her husband, Paul Hulleberg, decided to let the boys have their way, although Anders and Lucas, then 11 and 8, were already playing in a recreational baseball league and on the school lacrosse team. The parents wondered: Maybe three team commitments wouldn't be much more hectic than two?

Looking back, Cobb can laugh. Within weeks the family was near exhaustion. "Our children love sports and so do we. But it got to be ridiculous," she recalls. One especially absurd experience stands out: driving approximately 25 miles on a rainy day to one son's travel-team game, returning home to change into dry clothes, then going back to watch her other son in another game. In all, the boys played 68 games in roughly four months.

Welcome to youth sports in the 21st century. The freckled faces and knobby knees you remember from your days rounding the bases still dot the sports landscape, but just about everything else has changed. Today's athletes start earlier than ever, with kids as young as 2 or 3 taking sports lessons and joining tot leagues by age 5. About 26.1 million children -- more than half of all 6- to 17-year-olds -- suit up with an organized sports team, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in North Palm Beach, FL.

For parents, there's pressure to get their kids involved in sports at young ages but also confusion about how much is too much and how soon is too soon. Most children can begin playing sports as young as age 5 and competing around age 8, says John Engh, vice president of youth development at the National Alliance for Youth Sports in West Palm Beach, FL. There are a few Tiger Woods-esque children who are ready and willing to compete at age 3, but that's rare, he adds. Still, the lure, however unrealistic, of turning children into pros has some families rushing to enter the sports maze.

Next: Cons & Pros

Cons & Pros

Navigating the Sports Maze Page 2

One indication that the current state of sports participation may be problematic is that 70% of kids in sports leagues hang up their cleats by age 13, according to a study from Michigan State University in East Lansing. Researchers are divided on how to explain the dropouts. Some say attrition is inevitable, that there will be an ebb and flow as children sample many sports and activities. But others view the rush of kids leaving the court or field each year as cause for alarm. Many are walking away, they say, because they're frustrated by ultra-competitive leagues and by coaches and parents who put winning first.

It falls to parents to keep the games in perspective. "Once in a while, a Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky comes along and goes through his career without failing. For the rest of us, the key is enjoying the journey, whether we're winning or losing," says Damon Burton, Ph.D., a professor of physical education who specializes in sports psychology at the University of Idaho in Moscow. We talked to professionals and parents for pointers on how to handle some of the stickier aspects of youth sports.

Finding the Perfect Sport

When you were a kid, sports options were probably few. Now, many schools and community centers offer everything from in-line hockey and fencing to golf and tae kwon do. Overwhelming, sure, but variety can work in your favor. Experts say parents should encourage young children to sample a range of sports to see which ones they enjoy most.

"In the beginning, there's real physical, psychological, and social value in having kids try multiple activities," says Jordan D. Metzl, M.D., medical director of the Hospital for Special Surgery's Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes in New York City and the author of The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor's Complete Guide for Parents. "Physically, children develop different skills, like hand-eye coordination and endurance, and work a variety of muscles. Psychologically and socially, they're seeing firsthand the benefits of individual vs. team activities and they're making friends from different groups," says Dr. Metzl. In fact, research has consistently shown that children's self-image gets a boost when they have positive sports experiences. One University of Washington study concluded that kids who play for coaches who praise their effort often feel better about their sport and more confident about themselves away from the field.

Navigating the Sports Maze

Navigating the Sports Maze Page 3

When kids get to be 7 or 8, let them take control. That's the strategy Cobb and Hulleberg use with their boys. "We follow our children's lead," she says. "Our approach is, 'Is this important to you? Are you willing to make the commitment?' If the answers are yes, we do it." Still, experts warn against allowing kids to sign up for too many sports. "Children need to take a break from sports for at least one month out of the year to give their bodies a rest," advises Dr. Metzl.

Suzanne Regan of Bainbridge Township, OH, agrees that choosing a sport became easier as her children developed skills and preferences. Regan and her husband, Sean, let their daughter Kelsey, 14, join a wide range of activities over the years: gymnastics, ballet, softball, soccer, volleyball, and horseback riding. But it wasn't until a few years ago that Kelsey ultimately found her passion: figure skating. "We've never pushed any sport on our kids," says Regan, who also has an 11-year-old son, Jamie, a hockey goalie. "We feel it should be their choice, not ours."

If your child doesn't hit on a sport he's excited about, experts suggest that you try, subtly and creatively, to encourage participation. Take your daughter to a pro tennis tournament when Serena and Venus are in town. Sign the family up for golf lessons so your son can practice his putting and get quality time with Dad at the same time. If these efforts don't spark an interest, drop the issue -- without showing your disappointment. And never force your child into any activity. "One of the big problems in youth sports is kids whose parents make them play," says Dr. Burton. "They don't want to be there and they create a number of problems." These children are at particular risk for burnout and poor attendance at games and practices and often engage in disruptive behavior on the bench or sidelines.

The Ins and Outs of Kid Leagues

When former Baltimore Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr. was searching for a baseball league for his then 7-year-old son, Ryan, a few years ago, he could have easily brought his major-league know-how to the search. But Ripken admits he really wasn't as analytical as he might have been. Eventually he and his wife, Kelly, enrolled Ryan in a league that (a) was nearby and (b) had a longstanding connection to their family, because Kelly's dad had been one of its founders.

Though it's worked well for Ryan, Ripken doesn't suggest following his lead. Before you enroll your child, he recommends studying a league as you would a school. Go to a few games. Speak with parents of players. Peruse practice and game schedules, noting how many nights per week your child is being asked to commit. Among the questions he suggests posing to league officials: Is there a strong emphasis on winning? How much importance is placed on teaching and having fun? "It's easy to get carried away with practices three nights a week and a game on night four," says Ripken. "Before long, you're looking at a schedule that matches the pros'."

Chris Downs, president of Baltimore's Roland Park Baseball League for players ages 6 to 13, says one of the best questions a parent can ask is one he seldom hears: Does your league have a mission statement? "That's the first thing I'd want to know," says Downs, a middle school teacher and father of two girls who play in his league. Be wary of statements containing phrases like "highly competitive" and "total commitment" -- most experts agree that a child's first sports experience should be relaxed.

The highly competitive non-travel leagues are easy to spot. Usually, the more rules a league imposes on kids, the more serious it is. Warning signals include coaches with policies about missed practices (two and you're off the team, for example), registration forms that advise against family vacations during the season, and admonitions from league officials not to join extracurricular activities. Before enrolling your child in such a league, especially if she's under 12, parents should ask themselves, "Does my child truly want this, or am I pushing my own desires for competition onto her?" Some kids thrive on more serious games, of course. But forcing reluctant children into such high-pressure situations can turn them off to sports for years -- or forever.

Next: Travel Teams

Travel Teams

Eventually, some parents have to decide whether to sign their kids up for travel teams, where the seasons generally become longer and the uniforms spiffier. The stakes are higher too -- some travel teams expect players to hone their skills year round. And though these leagues have been in existence only since the 1970s, they're now available in most communities. Many cater to children 12 and over, but as travel leagues gain acceptance, the age of entry has sunk to 7 or 8.

Marty and Richard Justice, who live in a suburb of Houston, expect to spend at least a few upcoming weekends on the road. Their daughters, Katy, 15, and Lizzie, 11, are swimmers for a community club that has made its mark in the Southwest. But staying with the program requires dedication: Katy spends as many as 18 hours in the pool each week. And it's not cheap. Marty estimates that between team fees and travel bills, her family will rack up charges of $5,000 to $7,000 this year.

Unfortunately, some parents expect payback for this kind of investment. "I've seen a mother berate her child because she didn't get a time the mother was hoping for," says Marty. "We've told our girls, 'When you're tired and don't feel like doing it anymore, you quit. This is for you, not for us.'"

Betty Symington, mother of Arthur, 11, a soccer player, agrees -- she doesn't even consider travel teams. "At this age, it's too intense and too competitive," says Symington, of Upperco, MD. "And it takes away from family time on weekends."

Looking for a guiding principle? Just as every child is different, no two leagues are alike. Do the research. Above all, keep your child's life in balance. Take her to the movies once a month. Encourage her to volunteer at a soup kitchen. And make sure schoolwork always comes first.

Spotting a Quality Coach

Who are the people running children's sports teams? The answer is often as simple as looking in the mirror: You are. Of the 2.5 million adult volunteers involved in kids' leagues, more than half have kids playing in the same league.

In some ways, that's reassuring news. "Parents mean well. They want their children to have a positive experience, and the overwhelming majority really are trying to do the right things," says Dr. Burton. Unfortunately, coaches often take the job with a less-than-perfect résumé. In fact, few have even been exposed to formal coach training, though programs of this type have been gaining popularity. (To find a program near you, contact the National Alliance for Youth Sports at 561-684-1141 or visit www.nays.org/) Other coaches aren't equipped to teach the fundamentals of the game. And a minority of them may run their teams with the old Vince Lombardi bromide "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" ringing in their ears.

Next: Coaches

Coaches

But there are exceptions. Vern Seefeldt, Ph.D., Michigan State University professor emeritus and founder and former director of the College of Education's Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, praises those coaches who direct equal attention to the less gifted players. These leaders understand that their job is to build confidence and self-esteem in all players, not just the stars, says Dr. Seefeldt: "Coaches have a tremendous responsibility to improve the skills of the least talented individuals. The better players generally take care of themselves in terms of skill development, but they, too, need guidance in social and moral development."

Practices are an especially good indicator of a coach's ability to relate to young athletes. The sessions should be set up so that players are constantly engaged, stopping only for drink breaks and to marvel at how much fun they're having. In a well-run practice, an hour flies by before kids realize they've improved a move or shot.

Unfortunately, there are a misguided few. David Norris, who lives in northeastern Pennsylvania, was taken aback when the coach of his 12-year-old son's "very competitive" soccer team had a meltdown after the team lost a game. On the sidelines, players were reaching for a post-game snack when the frustrated coach aggressively slapped at their hands. In the tangle of limbs, one child was thrown to the ground. The coach later offered what seemed a "lame and insincere" apology to the parents: "I broke my number-one rule. I lost my temper." But Norris said nothing to the coach because his son begged him not to. "He told me, 'If you bring this up, I'll get less playing time,'" explains Norris, whose name has been changed.

A coach who openly flouts the rules can be just as offensive. "If a league has a rule requiring players to rotate through various positions, but some children keep playing the same position over and over, that tells me the coach is more interested in winning than in helping kids," says Dr. Burton. "This kind of behavior can dramatically reduce the self-esteem of those athletes who get shortchanged."

In rare but unfortunate situations, things can spiral out of control between parents and coaches. Last September, a Middletown, NJ, man struck a coach in the middle of a youth soccer tournament. The fight had begun when a player was injured and the opposing coach yelled for him to be dragged off the field. Just as an official was penalizing the coach for the insensitive remarks, a parent of a player on the other team approached the coach and hit him in the face.

Address Problems

If you're having doubts about your child's coach, speak up. Don't assume things will get better on their own. Whether the problem is that your child always bats ninth or the coach loses his temper during games, give it as much thought as you would a conflict with your child's teacher, suggests Ripken. At the proper time, and not in front of other parents, approach the coach and mention that you'd like to discuss a few issues. "But pick your battles. If you nitpick and complain every day, you're not going to have a happy relationship," says Ripken, who now has a children's baseball league named after him. In the league, which includes nearly 700,000 kids, he's planning to establish rules against parents speaking up or using intimidation during games. His overall goal: to bring the spirit of fun back to the game so that kids enjoy it rather than feel it's being forced upon them.

Dr. Seefeldt recommends asking the coach about his expectations for the children. Ask what skills the kids should possess and at what level they should be able to perform; the answers allow you to judge whether the coach knows the sport. Also, have a discussion about the coach's code of conduct for his players. Open with, "If discipline seems called for, how do you address the children?"

You may very well find that the coach is just as eager to work out these issues as you are. After all, you're on the same team.

The Pros Weigh In

  • "It's essential that parents conduct research and make sure that their child is in a good and healthy sports program. The best way to do that? Ask parents for feedback and spend time watching how coaches react to the other children -- what you observe can set the tone for the entire experience." -- Robin Wagner, Glen Cove, NY-based coach of 2002 Olympic figure skating gold medalist Sarah Hughes
  • "My wife and I made a real point of not encouraging our son to play football at all, even though I'd had a successful career as a player myself. Instead, we were very interested in having him try all kinds of other activities -- including soccer, baseball, and basketball -- until he found the one sport he truly enjoyed." -- Calvin Hill, former All-Pro NFL running back and father of NBA star Grant Hill
  • "Regard your child's sports participation as you would her participation in a school play. Sit down, keep quiet, and try to absorb the scene as a whole. Polite respect and encouragement are what's called for here. If you're not having any fun watching your child play sports, neither, probably, is your child." -- Ken Holtzman, youth sports supervisor in St. Louis and former All-Star Major League pitcher

Smart Safety Moves

Each year more than 3.5 million children under age 15 seek medical treatment for sports-related injuries, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. To help keep your child safe, experts recommend following these guidelines:

  • See your pediatrician first. Before your child begins a sport, make an appointment to have his fitness level evaluated and discuss any previous injuries he's had.
  • Brush up on protective gear. Kids need more than snazzy sneakers. Ask the coach about helmets, eye protection, mouthguards, wrist, knee and elbow pads, and any other equipment young players may need.
  • Encourage proper warm-up. Skipping stretching increases your child's risk of injury. The team should warm up for 15 to 30 minutes before playing.
  • Be sure the rules of the game are enforced. Kids who disregard the rules can easily injure themselves and those around them. Watch a few practices and games to make sure that the coach disciplines kids who act up or are too aggressive on the field.
  • Emphasize alertness. Many kids are so busy watching the ball that they forget to be aware of the other players. Remind your child to look around at all times to avoid potentially harmful collisions.
  • Head off dehydration. Be sure your child drinks plenty of water before, during, and after practices and games, especially in hot weather. Kids weighing under 90 pounds should drink five ounces of water every 20 minutes to replenish fluids lost through sweat.
  • De-accessorize. Remove your child's jewelry and watch before play. They may injure her or other players during close contact.
  • Prepare for emergencies. Ensure that the coach is trained in first aid and CPR; it's also smart for him to have a cell phone to quickly call for help if needed. -- Jessica Brown

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Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the May 2003 issue of Child magazine.

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