Fixing Kids' Sports
Rescuing children's games from crazed coaches and parents
The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken note. "Those who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after reaching the age of puberty," the academy said in a statement four years ago, "tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries, and adhere to sports play longer than those who specialize early."
What overeager parents should really worry about, some experts say, is burnout. Jim Perry is director of athletics at La Quinta High School in Westminster, Calif., a public school where club sports are hugely popular. He says he recently read an article about a national powerlifting championship for kids as young as 9. "What 9-year-old gets up in the morning and says, 'I want to be powerlifting'?" he asks. "That came about because of a coach or a parent." Perry says many kids, so pushed, tire of sports by the time they reach high school. "It's not a matter of [club sports] sucking talent away [from high school]. They're driving high-end kids away from athletics in general," he says. "They're sick and tired of playing 135 travel baseball games a year by the time they're 12 years old. They're sick of playing 100 soccer games a year before they ever set foot in high school. They don't need it anymore."
Besides, it's not yet proven that year-round play, travel teams, and specialization make better athletes. "Most of today's top professional athletes didn't even think to specialize in just one sport until they were in high school, around the age of 15," says Rick Wolff, chairman of the Center for Sports Parenting at the University of Rhode Island. Cal Ripken, for one, attributes his success on the diamond partly to playing three sports into high school. Soccer taught him footwork and balance, he says. Basketball gave him explosiveness and quick movements. "I think athleticism is developed," he says, "by everything you do." For that reason, he tells his 10-year-old son, Ryan, "put down your glove" when spring baseball is over.
All the emphasis on winning, perversely, can make for inferior skills. The Virginia Youth Soccer Association, with 138,000 registered players, recently posted a long note on its website from Technical Director Gordon Miller assailing "overly competitive travel soccer." In their zeal to win games, Miller warned, some Virginia travel teams emphasize the wrong things. Big kids are recruited and taught to kick the ball long down the field instead of being taught to make tight, short passes and ball-handling skills. "You don't encourage flair, creativity, and passion for the game," he says, emphasizing that it is in practice, not games, that young athletes develop their skills. Studies show, Miller says, that in a typical game a player on average has the ball in his or her control for only two to three minutes. "The question is, 'Is playing all of these matches the best way to develop players?' " he asks. "And the answer is, 'No.' "
If we could only start over--that's one of Fred Engh's dreams. Engh has been traveling and speaking abroad, hoping to learn from others and to find countries where it's not too late to fix things. In the course of his travels, he came across the tiny Caribbean nation of Dominica, a place where organized youth sports do not yet exist. The Dominicans agreed to let Engh and his Alliance for Youth Sports start a complete roster of kids' sports there, from scratch. Engh told Ripken of the venture. Ripken says he was intrigued by the idea of starting a youth sports program with the slate entirely clean. "I never thought there was a place on this planet that hadn't played baseball as an organized sport," he says. "Maybe I could help participate in something like that--rebuilding the joy of baseball."