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Let Kids Be “Willy-Nilly”

As a cardiologist and advocate for healthy living through exercise, the bleak news of rising childhood obesity hits me hard. But as an endurance athlete well versed in the inflammatory effects of excessive exercise, and a coach of middle school children, recent news reports on the overtraining of American youth is equally troublesome.

The overtraining of the young American athlete has risen to the level of capturing the attention of the American Academy of Pediatrics.  I planned on letting this New York Times piece pass quietly, as yet another documentation of how adults are either explicitly or implicitly drilling out the young athlete — sacrificing fun at the alter of performance. Little League-like overzealousness is old news dating back to my era, I thought. But I just couldn’t help myself.

Paradoxically, as many right-minded people strive to get American youth up off the computer and into the playground, we have at the other bipole the equally problematic issue of adult sanctioned overtraining of the young athlete. From the article:

The goal of youth participation in sports, the council said, “should be to promote lifelong physical activity, recreation and skills of healthy competition.” 

Unfortunately,” it went on, “too often the goal is skewed toward adult (parent/coach) goals either implicitly or explicitly. As more young athletes are becoming professionals at a younger age, there is more pressure to grab a piece of the ‘professional pie,’ to obtain a college scholarship or to make the Olympic team.”

(If you doubt the role of adults, I suggest you take in a Little League game between teams striving for a championship. But instead of watching the players, watch — and listen to — the parents and coaches screaming at them, and not just words of encouragement.)

But most young athletes and their parents fail to realize that depending on the sport, only a tiny few — 2 to 5 out of 1,000 high school athletes — ever achieve professional status.

My Confessions:
I am guilty. I sat in the parent dominated audience, and as the clock ticked down, my adrenaline level spiked, my heart thumped against my ribs, and my face flushed in full fight-or-flight mode. My teenage son, a starter on the Quick Recall team, confidently answers the game-winning question, and his small school upsets the heavily favored opponent in the regional QR battle. It was as exciting as the buzzer-beater three point shot. It made me dream of his future accolades and possible admission to MIT. Summer Quick Recall camp came to mind. Stop, I thought, you are not a little league parent. Ooooh, that was close.

I am guilty again — this time as a cross-country coach. By chance, we (Staci and I) were endowed with an incredibly talented and hard-working cadre of girl runners. Success in CC requires not one or two, but 4-5 solid runners. We had 6 wonderfully gifted girls. Every meet the blue train of St Agnes girls dominated the front of the race, like Duke basketball, or Texas Roadhouse cycling. Tasting success is infectious, and as such, our girl’s achievements made for a proud coach, who despite knowing better, transiently felt the same pride as the little league parent of the child prodigy. (It was my doing, wasn’t it?)

It is true that I almost fell into the quicksand that many single-minded sport enthusiast, over-achieving parents insidiously slip into: that more training, more specialization and more focus will garner more achievement.  It was close, but a well grounded wife, and enlightened friends threw me a rope, and pulled me out of the quicksand.  Yes, despite our CC team’s mission statement that fun and health would be central tenets, the infection of success nearly pushed me into the abyss which is filled with parents of star little leaguers, swim parents, soccer parents and maybe the most misguided of them all, the Math-Science parents.

I nearly ran my talented teenagers into an inflammatory haze. At least this was before I was an enlightened blogger. Grin.

A Master of the Obvious would conclude:

Kids don’t run marathons, swim the English Channel or ride the Tour de France, so it seems obvious they don’t need to train as such. An infinitesimally small percentage make the NBA, NHL or MLB, so it also seems obvious that children should store their baseball glove after the season, and break out the basketball–or something else, anything else.  In fact, this highly enlightened article specifically cites the increasingly common year long focus on one sport as an important factor in both the physical, and emotional burn-out of our young athletes. More from the article:

A major factor in the rising injury rate is the current emphasis on playing one sport all year long, which leaves no time for muscles and joints to recover from the inevitable microtrauma that occurs during practice and play. With increased specialization, there is also no cross-training that would enable other muscles to strengthen and lighten the load.

Even when a sport is done seasonally, daily practice can result in problems. The pediatrics council recommends that young athletes “have at least one to two days off per week from competitive athletics, sport-specific training and competitive practice (scrimmage) to allow them to recover both physically and psychologically.” The group also recommends that children and adolescents play on only one team a season and take a vacation of two or three months from a specific sport each year.

As a fan of sport, nothing saddens me more than seeing a drilled-out, hollow-cheeked young athlete who no longer wants to enjoy the beauty of athletic competition.  Or, an athlete (or student) whose previous success, and inherent assumption of future success, acts as a barrier to just playing for the joy of playing.  To me, the physical injuries of over-specialization are less onerous than the emotional distraught reaped from the siphoning away of fun.

Shouldn’t adults be wiser? Shouldn’t we just let the children play, willy-nilly, as they would naturally do, if not for the misconception that effort and single-minded focus can overcome DNA?

JMM

*This blog post was originally published at Dr John M*


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