One Mom Asks How Much Sports Is Too Much?

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AokiFrom the Reporters Inc.:

A couple of months ago I overheard a conversation between some relatives about a friend whose daughter had suffered a concussion while playing basketball. The girl’s mom was lamenting how she was going to follow doctor’s orders to keep the girl still for a week. My initial reaction was “Why is this even a question? Does this mom not realize how serious it is for a 10-year-old to be suffering from a concussion?”

My second reaction was “Why is a 10-year-old getting a concussion playing recreational basketball?” The feedback I got when I voiced this question was “You obviously don’t have kids participating in competitive sports.” Yep. That’s right. My mistake. The injured 10-year-old isn’t on some YMCA rec league team. She’s playing in the more “elite” ranks of competitive club sports.

Then I was told that in the more popular sports of soccer and basketball, competitive kids leagues can start as young as age 6.

Seriously? Is this what our society has come to? That parents of children who can barely write or read are pushing their offspring to limits we normally expect of professional athletes?

I can remember as a child playing youth basketball, softball and volleyball. My childhood is filled with positive memories of participating in sports. The experiences are a large part of who I am today. I wasn’t the star player, but I made a lot of friends. Sports kept me occupied after school and it kept me in shape. But I never did it for the glory. I did it because it was fun. And I definitely never got a concussion.

Studies abound about the benefits of youth sports participation. It builds self-esteem, teaches leadership and teamwork, and gives a child experience in dealing with losing and winning, in addition to the physical activity benefits.

But there are dangers that counter these benefits, such as serious injuries, stress and burnout. I don’t think these words were ever intended to be used to describe an athlete whose age is only in the single digits. With older children, physicians are seeing patients who suffer from acute trauma that used to only be seen in adults.

What led to this über-competitive culture we now find ourselves living in? And what’s a parent to do when their child wants to participate in team sports for fun?

For the past 50 years, the culture of competitive sports has ramped up as parents looked for ways to give their kids an edge in college applications. Along the way, the mentality of “keeping up with the Joneses” crept in, as parents didn’t want their kids to fall behind their peers. Today there are specialty coaches, clubs and equipment that “help” a child excel at the sport of their choice.

I say “choice” singular because now more than ever the emphasis is on young kids playing or specializing in only one sport.  It may seem obvious why parents would want their child to focus on developing skills in only one sport. But experts say there’s something to be gained by cross-training or participating in different sports that develop different motor skills.

Specialization also leaves behind the kids who took up a sport later in childhood, are less talented or can’t afford the extra coaching or fancy equipment.

So how do we turn back the tide or make sports fun for kids who really should just be kids? It all starts with parents exposing them to multiple sports that are age-appropriate and allowing them to choose what they enjoy. Parents have to monitor their kids’ stress and enjoyment levels and make sure they’re realistic in their expectations.

My son is only 5 and is just now showing an interest in team sports. His sport of choice at the moment is soccer. This interest grew from a community recreation class we enrolled him in last year. Time will tell if he’ll be doing it for fun or if he has the talent to take it to a more competitive level. If he does have the skills, his father and I will then be faced with the question: How far do we push him to excel?

I’m not faulting those parents whose child may truly be destined for the Olympics. But for the majority of parents whose kids won’t make it to college on an athletic scholarship or reach the pro ranks, maybe they need to do some self-examination and keep their own egos in check instead of living out their dreams of stardom through their children.

The experts agree that if a child truly wants to participate in competitive club sports the parents should allow it. There are social and emotional benefits for kids participating in sports, and research shows that older children who are involved in sports are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, participate in gangs and will delay sexual activity.

I sincerely hope I have the strength to resist the urge to be swept up in the culture of competitive sports should my son be headed down that path. Maybe I’ll have to remember these words I’m writing now, and that I never want to be that parent of a 10-year-old with a concussion, worrying about how I’m going to follow doctor’s orders.

Lori Aoki is a marketing and communications consultant She can be reached at loriaoki@gmail.com.

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