Posted: May 09, 2014 10:30 AM
Organized sports have often been cited as a healthy outlet for kids. Through team sports, children learn to work together, get exercise and build self-confidence. Until parents step in and pile on the pressure to win at all costs. Including, but not limited to, losing out on a happy childhood.
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It's no big secret that youth sports have taken a very competitive turn in the past decade. Most notably by the parents on the sidelines (or should I say practically on the field barking out tips?). Where youth sports used to be a healthy outlet for kids to get some exercise, socialize with peers and build self-confidence, they have now become a hot spot for competition. Among children and parents. Children are pushed to hone their skills and spend every moment of free time working on their sport of choice while parents scour the internet in search of the best private coaching, the best club teams and the very best summer training camps. And to what end? Given that only 1 in 16,000 high school athletes attains a career in professional sports, it seems like a good time to tone down the sports-related pressure in this country and let kids be kids.

A recent article in the Boston Globe noted that most seasons are now bleeding into one another as children specialize in sports and play a single sport year round. A typical soccer season, for instance, used to run from September to Thanksgiving. Today playoff games continue well into January, and high-cost club teams take over from there to bridge the gap until spring soccer begins. Between practices, games and private coaching (by parents or hired coaches), some kids truly never get a break. And they are burning out. According to the National Alliance for Sports, quitting youth sports peaks at age 13, when winning becomes more important than having fun.

It's time for a wake-up call for overzealous sports parents:  Pressuring your child to succeed at all costs will only lead to consequences down the road.

Singular focus

Specializing in a sport at age 10 is akin to choosing a career before you even get to high school. Kids thrive on variety. Although academic pressure can be intense at times, the great thing about school is that kids are constantly bombarded with new and interesting information. They soak it all in and expand their understanding of the world in the process. Imagine, for one moment, what it would be like if your child could only study math from now until adulthood. Does that sound like a healthy and happy childhood?

Specializing in a sport at age 10 is akin to choosing a career before you even get to high school.

Specializing in sports robs children of opportunities. Sure, they might show a talent for a particular sport early on, but that doesn't mean that they don't want to try other sports or even consider an extracurricular that has nothing to do with sports at all.

I remember the changing of the seasons of my youth. By the end of November, I was more than ready to hang up my cleats and lace up my skates. And on cold winter days, I enjoyed drawing in the comfort of my bedroom. Kids need variety and change. They need to learn new skills, embrace new ideas and push their own boundaries. They need to use different muscles, activate different regions of their brains and learn to work with different kids. And sometimes they just need to stay home and do absolutely nothing. They won't accomplish any of those developmental tasks by hyper-focusing on a single sport.

Pressure cooker

Many kids feel the pressure to perform from an early age. Several clients have sat on my couch, tears streaming down their faces, as they recalled the look of disappointment on their parents' faces when they missed an important play. You might think that a little bit of pressure motivates kids to work harder on the field, but your pressure gauge is likely to be misguided. Kids might put up a good front, but it's difficult to cope with intense parental pressure to win and succeed every day of the week.

While some kids burn out and simply refuse to play, others suffer symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Childhood stress is not to be taken lightly, and reevaluating your own behavior at games, during practices and in between is a great first step toward dialing back the pressure.

Set-up for failure

When youth sports become a full-time job and childhood slips away, you set your child up for failure.

It is a very small percentage of young athletes that plays on the college level (an even smaller percent earns those coveted scholarships) and continues on into the pros. Removing childhood from your child by dragging her from one sporting even to the next more often than not on a year round basis will not necessarily improve her chances of earning a scholarship or becoming an Olympian. While youth sports offer a number of benefits to children, these benefits only occur when moderation is present. When youth sports become a full-time job and childhood slips away, you set your child up for failure.

What happens when that scholarship doesn't come through? What happens when an injury puts an end to sports altogether? There are endless what-ifs when it comes to kids specializing in sports, and failure lurks around every corner. A better bet is to help your child pursue multiple interests, both on a competitive and non-competitive level. The truth is that colleges are more likely to take notice of kids who follow their own dreams, not the dreams of their sports-obsessed parents. So go ahead, let your kids be kids and see where life takes them. You will all be better for it.

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Topics: sports