Calling a timeout on youth sports

Some kids are being pushed too hard, asserts a Columbia psychologist

Howard At Play

May 19, 2002|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sports consume a chunk of childhood for many children. As young as age 4, some are put into organized sports, and finding 9- and 10-year-olds playing two or three sports isn't unusual.

But when do the proven benefits of sports - fitness, discipline, teamwork - dissolve into stress that results in burnout?

Brad Sachs, a Columbia psychologist specializing in clinical work with children and families, also is a youth soccer coach and father of three, ages 15, 12 and 9. He has written several books and appeared on more than 100 TV and radio shows. His newest book is called The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and Be Perfectly Satisfied.

Here, he offers advice on gauging how sports affect children:

What, in general, do you think about youth sports today?

There is far too much emphasis on competitive sports and on achieving prestige rather than on developing social skills and an awareness of one's body.

I have parents of 4- and 5-year-olds who are worried that their kid doesn't want to play on a soccer team or participate in a swim meet. From a child development perspective, that's preposterous.

They should be engaging in spontaneous play with each other and exploring nature and interacting with peers without adult intervention. And they should be exploring their physicality by running and jumping but not in an organized fashion.

What's a good age for children to start sports?

It depends on the child. There are children who at 4 enjoy being on a team. But we have this one-size-fits-all mentality that every child is expected to conform to. Some kids enjoy order and structure, but most of those at a young age don't.

The fear for parents is that if you don't start a child young, then if they want to play later, they're up against kids who have been playing since they were 4.

To some extent, that's the case - and exactly why we need to change. We do this to kids across the board. We expect them to be reading before kindergarten, for example.

We're speeding up childhood and depriving them of the opportunity to grow at their own pace. That's why we need to emphasize programs like intramurals, which give kids a chance to participate without having to excel.

At what age is it appropriate for a child to be cut from a travel or A team- but not from playing at a different level?

You make a good distinction, because they shouldn't be cut from playing altogether. But by the middle or end of elementary school, it's OK. We don't want to protect kids too much. An essential part of growing up is to know there are people who are better at something than the rest of us.

What about playing one sport year-round? Many coaches now expect a child to be in an indoor league and the fall league and the spring league.

Year-round is very problematic. I don't think there's any question from a physical and emotional development [perspective] that it causes problems.

Because they limit and narrow the range of possibilities, year-round sports deprive children of the chance to broaden who they are. It limits the chance to play, say, a nonteam sport vs. a team sport.

It's easy for parents to feel cowed or intimidated - or seduced - by coaches who urge that. But when you always say "yes" to that extra league or certain camp, you're not teaching kids to withstand temptation. You're not setting limits and not setting an example of how to withstand temptation. That can [make] children more vulnerable.

Can you tell when your child is playing too much?

The symptoms are irritability, anger, depression, anxiety, somatic complaints, headaches, stomachaches. All of these are things we want to diagnose as disorders, but more often, they're the result of stress.

How do you tell if you're setting appropriate limits on the amount your child plays?

It's a family issue, and it varies for each family and each child. It's not what feels the most gratifying at the moment but what is best for the child's long-term development.

The yardstick is allowing the child to have other pursuits - maybe learning a musical instrument or Scouts. Families do not create enough time to just hang out together, to go camping for the weekend, for example. Everything is so hyper-organized. There's always a game or a tournament or a practice.

If you have an 8-year-old on a baseball team playing 70 to 80 games a year, that's extreme. But the kids don't know enough to know that. The parents say: "He seems to be enjoying it; he wants to do it." But there are lots of things kids want to do that we don't let them do - we don't let them stay on the computer eight hours a day.

As parents, we have to set the limits, set the tone. When I hear about things such as "silent sidelines" guidelines or jurisdictions that declare one night a family night with no practices or games, that suggests that we as parents do have good instincts. Somewhere, a parent started that idea.

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