Tuesday, March 10, 2009
My three year old granddaughter plays shy around everyone, but put on some Little Richard and the girl goes wild. She bobs, weaves, claps, hops, twists, and twirls. Every inhibition she showed moments before melts away in the pounding piano chords and wails of the music. The girl can't help herself. This need to move about and use our bodies begins prenatal. Every mother and father knows about the kicks and rustles of their child in the womb. Some swear babies react to music and activity before birth. Once released into the world, babies definitely love to flail their limbs about.
So sports are a natural outlet for children. Tumbling tops the charts for the really young, but several team sports are now available for children as young as three. Parents, fearing they might miss a window of opportunity for their budding athletes, rush to get them into as many sports as possible. Adding to the pressure to do it all are TV programs which highlight precocious youngsters who golf with pros at age five or play junior national tennis at eight. However, the majority of kids are playing sports for which they have no idea of the rules or even that games are governed by rules. Either they or their parents or both just like the activity.
Youth sports are a booming business increasing every year as more and more kids and parents clamor for a wide variety of options. Over 41 million kids are involved in youth sports with many of those playing multiple sports. Lacrosse has increased from 82,000 players in 2001 to 204,000 players in 2005. USA Hockey has 350,000 members. Little League has close to 2.2 million players. US Youth Soccer registers 3.2 million players a year and CNN reports that the total number of youth soccer players may be as high as 17 million! Add the kids participating in recreational sports such as skateboarding, skiing, and bicycling and the numbers explode.
There was a time when play meant "Go outside until dinner." This unstructured play allows kids room for imagination and for taking pride in their own undirected accomplishments. After building a deck onto our house we had a huge collection of odds and ends of wood, nails, chicken wire, brackets, and metal. We became the hardware store for the neighborhood. Kids would come into our garage and pull out materials for building skateboard ramps, hideouts, and boxes to capture insects and frogs. Projects in various states of completion filled our courtyard and provided hours of intense involvement. Then there was the day we got a huge box with some delicate china pieces wrapped in literally miles of bubble wrap. The kids ended up laying the wrap out on the road and riding their bikes over it making the most amazing music out of snap, crackle, and pop. Those experiences have their place building memories and developing reasoning and discovery skills.
However more and more we are shifting to organized sports as parents feel the peer pressure to ride the youth sports wave. We fear our kids will miss out on popularity or being part of the group if they aren't in every conceivable sport available. We need to be careful not to transfer that pressure to our kids by over scheduling. Kids end up facing conflicting practices and games and the rush to do it all. The best lesson we can give our children is that of fully completing a commitment. Letting kids miss a practice for one sport so they can play in a game of another sport teaches them that they are above the team and their needs come first. That's the exact opposite of the principles kids should be learning from sports. And let's face it, most of our tiny athletes won't turn out to be sports celebrities, but we do want them to grow up to be honorable human beings. We need to be reinforcing the idea of teamwork, commitment, making choices, and respecting rules and leaders while giving kids the room to have down time.
Balancing multiple spots is possible if you use the seasons to subdivide and conquer. Kids can play soccer in the spring and football in the fall. Or do soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring. It's our job to keep track of what conflicts exist and guide them to decide which sport they will choose for the season, but make it clear they can't do them all at once. Indulging them sends the wrong message and leads to huge headaches later when the conflicts can't be resolved. Sports for kids under 12 should be primarily for exercise, giving them a taste of possibilities, and for learning the life lessons that sports offer.
Most doctors and physical therapists will support keeping a variety of sports in a child's life for as long as possible. The argument is that specialization too early will result in repetition injuries and uneven body development during the growing years. While I agree with the physical reasons not to specialize, I really think the best argument is that kids need experiences to enrich their lives and lay a strong foundation for future decisions. Every sport opens the door to new friends and new ideas. I'm a soccer junkie, and I wish all my grandkids would eventually select soccer as a sport they wish to continue into adolescence, but I'm also a realist. Not every kid is an athlete and not every athlete has the same strengths and interests. Even multi-sport athletes, who are few and far between, have one sport in which they excel even if they have strong abilities in other sports. No child can discover what part of her body responds best athletically and how her body will grow until she's much older. Tennis has a different skill set and body type than football, so kids need to complete their development before being able to wisely select a personal sport. Until then, they should try out as many sports as scheduling and finances allow.
Parents need to also accept that sports may not be the arena where their child's talents shine. Not doing well at sports doesn't mean the child is a failure. Unfortunately we have a "jock" culture which places athletes on a more visible if not higher pedestal than those who achieve in the arts or the sciences. Not many kids want to wear an "Einstein" endorsed button-down shirt, while every third child sports a Bret Favre jersey. Yet we have to keep in mind that lack of public adulation doesn't diminish the accomplishments and contributions non-athletes make to our lives. There's an art culture out there and a math culture and any number of other cultures which our children can join. We would do well to challenge our players with those opportunities also. Pick a season to do pottery classes or go to science camp.
It all comes down to providing the widest possible range of experiences we can for our kids. Sports should be a portion of that range but not overtake it. In reality most kids will not pursue sports into high school and even fewer will continue beyond high school. But sports will provide the foundation for good health and strong bodies. Sports can offer an outlet for the rest of our lives. So we should give kids several options in their early years. We should temper it all with free time and other pursuits. We don't want to give any kid a complex from sports; instead we want to give them the intellectual and motivational skills to someday design and build a sports complex.