Balance is the key

November 26, 2007

by Jenni Sebora

Don Hurley, a captain in the Houston Fire Department and the manager of the Texas Little League team that lost to Taiwan in the 1995 Little League World Series final, noted in The San Diego Union-Tribune that he knows first-hand the hysteria that can surround youth sports and budding stars.

“I could save one person from a burning building every month for the rest of my life and wouldn’t get near the attention I received managing that team. There’s something wrong with that,” he said.

We certainly hear or witness other scenarios where, as an article in www.charactercounts.org puts it, “youth sports aren’t necessarily child’s play anymore, they look like pro leagues in miniature,” and it’s the adults that make it that way.

Of course, not everywhere and not in every program is there such sensationalism put on winning and competition, but the drive to win and the fire for competition has certainly increased in our youth programs.

In fact, the above web site noted that it’s no surprise that burnout rates for kids are off the charts.

According to one study, 70 percent of all children involved in sports drop out before they turn 13. Now, of course, there are different reasons for this. Some youth find other interests, but the question is raised, “Why play anymore when play has all but been eliminated?”

In an article, “Teens’ dedication to activities carries high price,” Cheryl Long questions the longitude of dedication we are asking of our teenagers who are involved in sports – practice over dinner; practice on holiday weekends, practice on Sundays, etc.

She asks parents, coaches and teachers to ask themselves some fundamental questions:

• What constitutes dedication for teenagers, and what is the greater good for them and the rest of the family?

• Why are we asking our teenagers to be so dedicated? Is it to feed our desire as parents to have kids we can brag about when they can give “professional” performances?

I do believe that some parents live through their children and their children’s experiences.

Don’t we want our children to dabble in different things even if they may not be very good at them? she further asks.

There is a lot to be said for avoiding early specialization in one sport or activity.

An article, “Balance Sports with Family,” on www.momsteam.com suggests we should help our youth find a balance between sports (and other activities for that matter).

We should introduce our children to sports and other activities that they can participate in after their competitive career is over – cycling, tennis, running, canoeing, etc. And we should make sure we allow our children a social life outside of sports.

The article further suggests that we should encourage our children to play different sports and avoid early specialization. This will help our children develop a variety of transferable skills, such as running and jumping, which will also help them become better at a sport or activity that they ultimately choose to compete in.

Avoiding early specialization can also help reduce the risk of injuries due to overuse that often result from just that, early specialization and playing on a select team.

Being on a select team often requires a lot of travel and almost year-round commitment, which can lead to social isolation.

The athletic role can become so consuming and controlling that a child’s childhood can almost disappear, and their sole identity is that of an athlete instead of just a part of who they are, the article further stated.

Many experts believe that if a child waits until high school to specialize in a sport, he or she is likely to be better adjusted and happier, have a more balanced identity, and less likely to have an identity crisis when his competitive sports career finally ends, as it is likely to do after high school.

So it is important that we balance sports and other activities, family life, academics and free time.

Research has shown that teens who eat dinner with their parents five times per week or more are the least likely to be on drugs, or to be in trouble with the law, or to be depressed and the most likely to be doing well in school and to have supportive network of friends.

We may not all be able to have family dinners five times a week on a consistent basis but as many times as possible is beneficial for everyone.

Schoolwork should be a priority for our kids. In actuality, there are 30 times more dollars available for financial aid based on academics than for athletics, the aforementioned article noted.

We all need to remember what youth sports programs should be about.

Section 4 of the Gold Medal Standards for Youth Sports urges sports programs to be aware of children’s emotional, cognitive, moral and physical-developmental stages, as well as the reasons why they participated in or drop out of sports. “This information should be kept in mind by all adults in forming expectations and making judgments as to the appropriateness of sports opportunities,” as noted on www.charactercounts.org

Jack L. Patton of Wichita, Kansas, described the time he sub-coached a seven-year old girls’ soccer team.

One day one of the shy girls got the ball, nudged it toward the goal, and it went in. Her friends were so excited, he explained. He told her what a wonderful goal it was. The parents thought he had lost his mind. She had scored in the wrong goal.

His response to the goal and the girls was this: she didn’t know; her friends didn’t know, and he wasn’t going to tell her. He further noted that he could have yelled at her, and she most likely would have cried and quit.

Instead, she fell in love with the game.

Children can learn a lot from being involved in sports and other extracurricular activities; we just have to remember that they are children, and that balance is the key.

We want our children to be well-rounded, happy individuals.