Monday, June 15, 2015
Here’s a conundrum. Your youth player shows strong talent in and passion for soccer. He or she wants to play this sport to the exclusion of all others. However, we hear the criticism of such a choice. Physicians and trainers talk about the dangers of repetitive motion injuries. Psychologists caution that the pressures of intense, continual competition can adversely affect the mental development of youth players. Sociologists warn that the isolation from focusing on a single activity with a finite group of friends can complicate a child’s social interactions. Many experts will recommend that children don’t concentrate on a single sport until high school. On the flip side, and here comes the puzzling part, most successful world-wide soccer athletes began intensive training early in their careers. In fact, they will argue that the earlier a player begins to train exclusively in their sport, soccer in our case, the better chance they have to create and sustain a career in that sport. How do we as parents assess whether the choice to specifically select soccer or to open up our children’s sports experience to a variety of options will be the right one for their future? Barring the expertise of a true psychic or a keenly accurate Magic Eight Ball, we don’t have much to base our decisions on other than our own limited intuitive knowledge of our child’s abilities and stamina. It’s hard to say after only observing six to 10 years of our son’s or daughter’s lifetime what assessments we can make about their play, their strengths, and their adaptability. There are some significant studies and professional outlooks on this topic which may help guide our decisions.
By way of open disclosure, both my sons gave up all their other sports and arts interests by age 11. We certainly agonized over that decision, especially because each had good talent in other areas which we didn’t want them to later regret not pursuing. However, we were primarily motivated to their request because each showed tremendous passion for soccer and seemed genuinely unhappy playing other sports. For example, Robbie left every baseball game dejected and frustrated, which seemed confusing since he always got at least one hit during every game, his team won every game, and once he had an unassisted triple play. But he just couldn’t handle the down time waiting for his turn to bat, waiting for a hit to activate field play, and waiting for half an inning to get back out on the diamond. He liked the constant action of soccer where he was lucky enough to play most minutes. After several car rides of him pouting in the back seat and exhaling in loud, angry sighs, I gave in and let him drop the last additional sport he was playing. It may not have been an informed decision, but it luckily proved to be a good decision for both boys who continue to play and watch soccer with the same gleeful passion they had in elementary school. It could have ended differently, even disastrously, so I do wish I had paid more attention to the literature before we made the choice. There are the three areas to consider: physical, psychological, and social. The opinions vary, but the examples exist to help us chart a course.
On the physical end, physicians and trainers want parents and coaches to carefully consider the effects of long-term repetitive movements on the physical development of players’ muscles, joints, and actual growth. The concern is that young players who don’t have the bone strength and long bone growth to maintain the rigorous training that year-round soccer demands without injury and/or physical damage. The American Academy of Orthopedics defines these overuse injuries as “continually us[ing] the same muscle groups and appl[ying] unchanging stress to specific areas of the body. This can lead to muscle imbalances that, when combined with overtraining and inadequate periods of rest, put children at serious risk…” They recommend limiting the number of teams a child plays on and not playing a sport year-round, taking a season to play a different sport. Likewise Alexandra Fenwick in Sports Illustrated found that "Counter to the prevailing notion that early specialization is key to a pro career, studies show that future elites actually practice less on average in their eventual sports than near-elites and that most U.S.-born big leaguers play multiple sports through high school.” On the other hand, soccer players in around the world begin in the sport at age five or six and play it exclusively throughout their youth. What all medical experts do agree upon is that children exhibiting the symptoms of overuse injury should take a break. Those symptoms include pain that doesn’t subside with time, swelling along with redness that doesn’t improve with treatment, and visible motion problems such as limping or not running as well. Experts also agree that players who don’t develop physical stamina through proper training will suffer more injuries. Therefore it’s important that if a child chooses to pursue soccer exclusively and at a high level, he or she gets the appropriate training and medical supervision.
We never should make our decision on the dream of our child playing high school, college, or professional soccer. The numbers just don’t justify it. There are well over 13 million youth soccer players in the U.S., split nearly 50/50 between male and female players, but only 410,000 in men’s high school soccer. Around 6% or 24,000 go on to college and less than 2% of those go pro. Those aren’t the kinds of numbers to justify the risk of early injury through specialization. So the physical argument of the puzzle is significant when urging your child not to focus entirely on soccer. We need to also look at other factors as they regard what to do with our children’s desire to be a soccer player exclusively.
Youth players drop out of sports in huge numbers when they reach middle school. A big reason for that loss is burn out. When kids have numerous practices with a difficult regimen of games and tournaments, they can feel overwhelmed or in a rut. Dr. Alan Goldberg of Competitive Advantage, an organization to help develop and support top youth athletes, addresses the issue of burnout as a result of pressure to perform, having one’s self-worth attached to success, feelings of isolation from non-soccer peers, and bad relationships with coaches and teammates. Ironically, considering the impact of overuse injuries, one of the main symptoms of burnout according to Dr. Goldberg is complaining of constant injury or illness. These are sure excuses to get a child guilt-free out of the rut without much question from parents and coaches. Excessive complaints can be a sharp indicator that a child is feeling stressed. If kids are getting far more negative comments from a coach than positive it can adversely affect their self-image, especially in tween and early teen years. Having a broader base of activities allows kids to experience a range of successes and coaching which has important psychological benefits. Players can go through phases where they may want to quit, but if the reason is transitory, they get past it and return to their love of the game. This mental factor could be the most important in deciding if a youth should specialize in soccer to the exclusion of other sports. Does your child show strong passion for the sport? How do they handle defeat? Do they take criticism well? How do they handle pressure? I often think about gymnasts who rarely have any type of career after age 21. If they want to be gymnasts they need to focus on the sport at a very early age. The level of commitment to move to the next level of training and skill requires maturity and strength. Since few kids will move to the stratosphere of abilities, what we parents want is to keep them engaged enough in the sport to continue to enjoy the advantages of playing: physical conditioning, team work and collaboration, handling wins and losses with dignity, and most importantly having fun. So burnout should be avoided. The best way to ensure that for most kids is to give them breaks from soccer and reducing the work load (i.e. not playing on multiple teams or staying an extra year on a rec team). Sports should not be a source of stress, anger, or helplessness.
Finally we need to consider the social costs of concentrating solely on soccer. Kids might find themselves isolated from non-soccer-playing peers due to the demands the sport makes on them year-round. This becomes more acute as kids get older. Soccer can intrude on school dances, Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, Homecoming, class trips, and service projects, not to mention trips to the mall or going to movies with a group of friends. Since most weekends, nights, and summer days are dedicated to soccer practices and competitions, it can be hard to carve out time for non-soccer activities with peers outside of the sport. All the focus on soccer can also affect the entire family’s social life. If younger siblings have to accompany parents to watch games, they can feel just as isolated, and they can feel short-changed if family vacations are centered on soccer tournaments. We parents need to figure out how a decision to play just soccer (which usually means playing at a higher level) will affect everyone. Our job is to create balance so that no child experiences unfair demands on his or her time. We also need to keep our kids’ egos in checks so that the success of a team doesn’t translate into the single factor establishing a child’s self-worth. It can’t be said too often – playing a sport should be fun which adds to a child’s positive development. Also to be considered are the external pressures a child feels to continue playing a sport. The pressures can come from teammates, coaches, and especially parents. Kids may express a desire to pursue a sport based on these external cues from those children want to please. It’s important that parents continually reinforce with their players that the choice to play or not to play won’t affect how we view our children’s value.
The question of commitment brackets all of these matters. The Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology published a study by Tara Scalan and others examining how commitment is affected by various behaviors during sports and how it affects the overall well-being of a youth athlete. The study defined commitment as “a psychological state representing the desire or resolve to continue sport participation.” We might call it passion, especially as it relates to making the decision to focus on soccer as a young player. What the researchers discovered, which may seem intuitive, is that players who had sport enjoyment and experienced a personal investment in the sport were the most committed. As enjoyment and investment declined so did commitment. Likewise the more committed a player was, the more their investment grew. The authors stated that “because these investments cannot be retrieved upon termination of involvement, people become more psychologically attached as they allocate increasing amounts of resources to their participation.” I view it somewhat differently. The investment isn’t tangible but does pay out eventually if managed properly. The return for athletes comes from physical conditioning, pride in accomplishment, learning to collaborate, respect for authority, and emotional flexibility. However, their assessment that players become attached to the sport the more they invest in it becomes a valuable aspect in making a decision. Kids may feel that they can’t quit if they have put all their energies into one sport, therefore putting a psychological pressure on them that we may falsely interpret as passion when it is actually desperation and a fear of failure. Again, talking to our children and especially reassuring them that our love and respect for them isn’t based on their success as a soccer player will help our kids embrace the proper balance in their sports life.
Anecdotally, my sons never suffered any injuries even though they played on as many as four teams at the same time. I attribute that to good training, rest when aches and pains presented themselves, and regular medical evaluation. There were periods when each considered giving up on soccer, but those feelings were usually based on some transient concern so when it evaporated, so did their consideration of quitting. Personally I would have preferred they chose to continue playing other sports because it was fun to watch them in different situations plus I liked the parents of the kids on those teams and enjoyed their company. We were also lucky that the boys were only two years apart and we had no other children at home. They usually played in the same tournaments, so travel was easy and no one really had to sacrifice. However, we usually took one or two other players with us because their families had other commitments with their other children, so I recognize that we were very lucky in that regard. Everyone has to make their own best decision based on the concerns that are inherent in focusing on a single sport which usually means a sport played at the highest levels. The answer isn’t easy, and it isn’t one-size fits all.