Between the Lines: Finding a balance with youth sports

On most mornings this time of year, she gets out of bed at 5 a.m. so she can be at the rink at 6.
Some days she has company from other skaters, whom she joins in rehearsals for synchronized numbers they’ll perform as a group in the Winter Carnival ice show.
Other mornings, though, she’s alone. The ice is fresh from the previous night’s Zamboni sweep and the only sound is the scrape of her skates. She practices her solo routine or works on “moves in the field” so she can pass the next test of skating proficiency.
The story goes that this particular13-year-old attended her first ice show when she was two.
When she saw the show, she wanted so badly to be out on the ice with the skaters that she cried when her mother said she would have to wait — because they didn’t make skates for two-year-olds.
She’s been making up for it ever since.
Another student athlete of my acquaintance, a third-string goalie on the high school team, gets up about 4:30 a.m. on practice days. Because he needs to get his goalie pads on, he has to be at the rink half an hour earlier than the rest of the team.
His parents want to support his playing a sport he loves, so they get up early every one of those mornings and drive him 20 minutes to the rink.
Another father I know drives his soccer-loving son to Shelburne three times a week, during the soccer off-season, so the boy can play indoor soccer.
Many families go through this kind of sports-related process. These days, I also occasionally participate in driving that 13-year-old girl to and from her skating practices.
I see her gaining so much from her tireless dedication: a sense of physical stamina and grace along with the inner confidence that one gains from being really good at a sport.
Tal Birdsey, the founding headmaster of Ripton’s North Branch School, has observed and taught many middle-schoolers. He nicely makes the case for kids’ being dedicated to a single sport: “As a parent and a teacher, I see over and over that young adolescents want to belong to something that matters. They want something big, challenging and exciting.”
The benefits? “For adolescents who participate in a year-round sport and/or focus on one sport, they gain the gift of the discipline that comes in devoting oneself to mastering a specific set of skills and expertise,” Birdsey asserts. “They learn devotion and commitment.
They find out a lot about high standards, competition and the thrill of putting themselves against others who are similarly focused.
“I have seen again and again that the children who have an intense focus on high-level sports participation have the ability to meet other challenges with confidence. (By comparison,) kids without a compelling focus or ‘area of affinity or expertise’ often appear adrift, at a loss, and unsure of a clear ‘purpose’ or direction. When kids are competing or participating in sports at a focused/high level they have something that energizes them and makes them feel alive and connected and moving.”
Tal makes an excellent case for that approach. Nonetheless, I worry that in our hypercompetitive, winner-take-most culture — where future job prospects and the college application process loom over even seventh-graders — some of us may be teaching kids more than just the virtues of sports and friendly competition.
Some experts on youth and adolescence believe that a sports-centric life — piled on top of the expectation that our kids will also excel in school — is just one more way that parents are looking for every edge they give their kids. At the extremes, it’s a part of our culture that orients kids toward thinking that the only good life is the hard-charging one, and that the only happiness is what one gains from worldly success.
For every healthy development in kids sports — such as Title IX, which granted rough equality to girls and women’s sports — there is a negative. With the explosion in girls soccer, for example, has come a small epidemic in debilitating knee injuries that have lifelong consequences.`
Yes, it’s heartening to see these young athletes dedicate themselves to sports they love. The parents whom I know personally — including those I’ve described above — mostly keep things in balance for their kids.
But it seems to me that sometimes the practices go on for too many months of the year. And sometimes the huge expectations that the culture places on young athletes are out of whack.
Parents who push a sports-obsessed youth “because it’s what he wants” run a big risk. At some point they may be encouraging endless hours of sports among kids who don’t know how to put on the brakes, who only know to practice, play, and practice some more.
All of that can occur when what their kids really need is more unstructured downtime, good books and regular, restful sleep.
Finding the right sports-related balance, of course, is way better than deciding what to do about obese couch-potato children. Their only exercise comes from pushing the TV remote and flexing their thumbs over a video game.
But our culture pushes some athletically inclined kids too hard.
It used to be that athletes played two or three sports through their middle school and high school years. It was rare that they devoted themselves to one sport. In my own adolescence I played football in the fall, basketball in the winter while skiing on weekends, and tennis in the spring. We rotated among sports with the natural flow of the seasons.
Now many young athletes train year-round in just one sport, playing outdoor sports indoors and spending chunks of the summer on artificial ice. They attend summer sports camps.
They’re on a club team as well as the school team, traveling the state for tournaments.
Youth hockey is so intense, for example, that even the leaders of the statewide hockey program confessed on Jane Lindholm’s VPR program that they worry about the enormous level of commitment required of kids and their families.
There’s much to be gained, in contrast, by having kids play a variety of sports.
“If children don’t specialize in sports at a young age, they will be better suited to learning how to develop a variety of motor and athletic skills that transfer from one sport to another and can’t be developed by specializing,” assert James White and Gerard Masterson, Ph.D. (Masterson directs the Sports Management Program at Missouri State University).
“Starting ages for youth in competitive sports have lowered dramatically in the past two decades,” White and Masterson write on “Children who get involved in organized competitive sports at a young age may find themselves tired of the game they once loved. Young athletes are becoming increasingly stressed because of the pressure they are getting from their parents and coaches. They are traveling further, playing more games, and spending less time just being kids.”
We don’t need to push our kids to be Olympic swimmers or NFL defensive backs.
We do need to encourage them to study diligently and participate in a couple sports or recreational activities.
And we need to be sure they have plenty of healthy fun that isn’t contained within the confines of a hockey rink, a basketball court or a soccer field.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at

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