Friday, July 27, 2007

Bad Sports

Winning has become more important than the kids having fun, more important than the kids themselves.

My first glimpse of the problem came when I walked to the neighborhood Little League field to watch a friend’s son play baseball. Prominently attached to the fences were signs stating, in essence, that anyone yelling at the umpires would be asked to leave. Things hit closer to home at one of my oldest daughter’s kickball games a year or so later, when the game screeched to a halt while the grown-ups huddled around a thick rule book, trying to decide whether to call a player out for some minor infraction I can’t even recall, like taking 5 seconds too long to step up to bat. I didn’t remember kickball having so many rules when I was 10.

After a couple of years of fairly low-key recreational soccer, my son made a “select” team. Not every kid gets on these teams. The coaches are paid professionals, the rules strict. It’s costly, upwards of $1,000, plus uniforms and travel, which can be extensive. The first indication that the ante had been upped was when the team mom handed out lollipops to keep the parents quiet.

There were teams with matching bags precisely lined up on the sidelines, games where parents berated officials the entire time (obviously, they hadn’t brought lollipops), coaches who positioned parents at intervals along the sidelines to yell at their players. When my youngest daughter made one of these teams, she sometimes came home from practices and games in tears, devastated by the comments of a teammate or because she’d disappointed her coach. A particularly rainy fall left the team of sixth graders trying to make up games well into December. I asked if we couldn’t just let those games go (hello, it’s almost Christmas!), and was told that would mess up season statistics.

I think we are taking youth sports way too seriously. Programs like Little League and Pop Warner Football were originally founded on the principles of letting every kid play and having fun, but many youth leagues now resemble miniature versions of professional sports. The frightening “do whatever it takes to win” mentality includes yelling at children, playing through pain, and even trying to injure other players.Winning has become more important than the kids having fun, more important than the kids themselves.

Maybe we need to be reminded that these are just kids. Our kids. I remember T-ball—my son and his teammates spent their time in the outfield pulling up dandelions or digging in the dirt. The grown-ups often hollered at these 5- and 6-year-olds to pay attention. Now I wonder why. We shouldn’t have cared who won, just that the kids were outside and having fun.

I figured I was alone in my alarm until I read Why Johnny Hates Sports by Fred Engh. Engh says 70 percent of all youngsters drop out of organized sports by age 13 because of unpleasant experiences. Seventy percent. By age 13! Frankly, that seems to me about the age kids should start team sports, not already be burned out and quitting.

Sports, and team sports in particular, have a lot to teach children—when they’re ready. Let’s face it, 11-year-olds can get distracted or tired. So can 15-year-olds, but they usually have the developmental ability and maturity to push through it and give that extra effort. That feels like a real accomplishment, and teaches perseverance. But pushing an 11-year-old to act 15 won’t make her develop or mature anyfaster. It might, however, make her drop out of sports.

Fortunately, my youngest has decided to move on to another sport rather than quit. My dandelion-picking son seems to have let all that yelling go in one ear and out the other (an annoying skill in so many arenas), going on from baseball to soccer, basketball, football and, finally, lacrosse. My oldest daughter has dabbled in a variety of sports as well (her favorite: Ultimate Frisbee, a game that defies rules and organization).

I’m glad about this. I’m not against sports or competition, just against taking them too seriously.Too much competition sucks the fun out. An undue emphasis on winning and losing—and not on teamwork, self-improvement and good sportsmanship— takes away from the benefits sports can offer, like cooperation, respect for teammates and opponents, even compassion for the loser. I want my children—and their future coworkers, neighbors and spouses—to have exposure to those things, too.

Finally, I don’t think we should sacrifice the fun of childhood. No one should know better than my successoriented generation that you only get to be young once. I don’t think my kids will look back from that vaunted front-porch rocking chair and say, “Gee, I wish I’d won more soccer games when I was 11.” I know I won’t.

In addition to the emotional and psychological consequences of our overzealous attitudes, there are potential physical ones. Stress fractures, growth plate disorders, cracked kneecaps, frayed heel tendons and back problems were previously seen only in adults. Now injuries like these are reaching epidemic proportions in young teens, as more kids play one sport year-round and focus on single skills like kicking or throwing. Their still-growing bodies simply can’t take it. Some parents justify pushing their kids for scholarships, but a kid with injuries probably won’t be able to play, scholarship or no.

The American Academy of Pediatrics even issued a formal statement: “Those who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after reaching the age of puberty tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries, and adhere to sports play longer than those who specialize early.”

Kids won’t acquire skills faster just because they start younger. A lot of skill and ability is a function of age and development, not more practice. Former NBA player Bob Bigelow, who wrote Just Let the Kids Play, didn’t even play basketball until high school. World Cup star Mia Hamm didn’t focus on soccer until age 16.That gawky 10-year-old who can hardly run and breathe at the same time could grow up to be the next Mia if given a chance. A lot of kids never discover their talent because they’re told at age 9 or 10 that they aren’t good enough.

Remember that old saw about variety being the spice of life? I don’t want my children to spend their youth hammering away at one thing, no matter what it is. This is the time of life (maybe the only time) they can and should try many things—a variety of sports, musical instruments, dance, horseback riding, camping, biking, scouts. I don’t know about you, but I’m just darned bored watching yet another soccer game. I could go for a little softball for a change, or a picnic, a game of cards, or a hike in the woods.

In short, let’s lighten up and let our kids be kids while they still can. We’ll all have more fun.

Melissa Gaskill is co-author of Lacrosse: Guide for Parents and Players (Mansion Grove House, 2006). Her most recent contribution to Texas Co-op Power was the May 2005 cover article,“Rhinos at Fossil Rim.”

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