Add This

Monday, October 08, 2007

Does parental pressure hurt teen athletes?

While cleaning out my pitches file, I found this story that I tried and nearly placed at several magazines. I'd still like to do this piece because it's an important topic for teens and parents of teens. If you have any feedback on the topic or suggestions on where to take this, feel free to comment. I've added a little more from my notes than what was included in the original pitch.

One-dimensional athletes
How pressure to succeed from parents, coaches and themselves may be hurting our kids
By Wendy A. Hoke
Fourteen-year-old Joe excels at basketball and football and loves playing both. But his parents are discouraging him from going out for the football team, not because of the time it consumes, but because they think he has a better shot of getting a college scholarship in basketball. So in addition to his school team, Joe also plays AAU basketball in the off-season and takes private instruction from a local basketball instructor and former pro.

Great planning on the parents’ part? Not necessarily, say many experts, who believe grown-ups should resist the urge to push kids into sports specialization. They aren't the only ones tempering the idea.

At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons in February, panelists sounded the alarm of rising overuse injuries in children as young as age 4. In the care of adolescents and pre-adolescents, orthopedics are seeing injuries that stem from year-round participation wearing on young bones. “They never get a chance to rest,” says Thomas Clanton, team doctor for the NBA’s Houston Rockets.

Dr. Michael Connor, a California State University Psychology Professor who has counseled male and female athletes at the high school, club, collegiate and professional level for more than 15 years, agrees. “Athletics as a nice way to round kids out seems to be lost,” says Dr. Connor. Indeed, specialization may set both parents and children up for disappointment and dilute interest in recreational exercise.

“As parents do we want to develop healthy lifelong habits of movement and enjoyment of physical activity?” asks Dr. John McCarthy, Director of the Institute for Athletic Coach Education at Boston University, or are we raising little super-athletes. “Unfortunately society is pushing sport into a professional level.”

What's driving that pressure? Connor believes the motivation is often financial, translating into hopes for a college scholarship. However, some parents will spend more money in help and training to gear up their child for that college scholarship than they would for college tuition.

The push toward specialization is also clouded by the rose-colored glasses parents often wear.

“Parents often see their kids as more talented than they are,” Dr. Connor says. Most parents have no sense of how unlikely it is that there kid will ever play college or pro sports, he says.

When teens make the decision to specialize in one sport exclusively, he says, the pressures are coming primarily from parents. He also notes that overly enthusiastic parents may not properly gauge their child’s interest in a particular sport: "Kids may be saying that this is what they want, but I'm not convinced that they are making an informed decision. Often, they've been coached into believing this by their parents.”

Specialization isn't always what colleges are after. As a former recruiter for college teams, Dr. McCarthy says he would look for athletes who could play multiple sports because of their growth potential. Those who specialized early may not be able to adapt to suit a college team's needs.

Still, focusing on one sport may not always be harmful. A whole generation of kids have yet to grow up and show us whether or not such activity is good for their overall health in the long run, says Dr. Susan Joy, head of women's sports medicine at The Cleveland Clinic. But that impact may be presenting itself now as the orthopedics convening earlier this year in San Diego discussed.

So how do you ensure that sports specialization is right for your children and how to do you encourage your child to do it safely?

Steady As She Goes. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children who engage in one sporting activity exclusively for nine months of the year should take the remaining three months to rest or engage in another activity. Experts also say that children need one day off per week. “They need that time off to allow their muscles to regenerate and recuperate,” Dr. Joy says.

Spread Out Success. Kids who excel at a sport at a young age do not necessarily mature into that sport. “Make sure your child doesn't hinge his or her self-worth on success in a fifth-grade sport,” says Dr. Joy.

Recognize Your Child's Limitations. “Hopefully your kids will get the best of your genes. But if you and your spouse are not athletic, most likely your kids will not be athletic,” says Joy. And even if you were a sports star, it doesn’t mean your child will be—or wants to be. Whether he’s injury-prone, unfocused or competing with too many other top achievers, your child may not live up to expectations.

It’s About Timing. Some sports—football, basketball and swimming—require the release of pubertal hormones before children can mature and develop in those sports. Others—namely gymnastics and figure skating—have such a narrow window for success that you have to decide at a young age to go full tilt.

Follow Your Child’s Heart. Encourage your child to explain what she does and doesn’t like about a sport so you can ensure she has a complete picture.

Keep It Real. Encourage them to try another sport in a less-competitive, more recreational environment to balance the competition with a little fun.

Keep It Balanced. Encourage your child to weigh what he is giving up to specialize. What is he crossing off the list in order to devote so much time to one activity?


Michelle O'Neil said...

I think the question overzealous parents must consider is "who is this for?"

Wendy Hoke said...

I think you're right, Michelle. As a parent of a teen athlete, it's tempting to get a little overzealous. We definitely learned about tempering our enthusiasm as my son misses the entire freshmen football season this year with his collarbone.