Harvard, Soccer, Over-Scheduled Families
By Alvin Rosenfeld, MD
Keynote Address, International Youth Sports Conference
Atlanta, Georgia
September 13, 2003

With Attribution, this talk may be quoted without explicit, written permission

As sports administrators, you are working hard to make sports a constructive part of kids' lives. But you know better than I you're your job is often make harder because children's athletics are being professionalized. Many kids are enticed into organized leagues where the joy of playing sports with friends is not the goal; the goal is winning big, perhaps getting to the Little League World Series, an oxymoron if ever there was one. This development is connected to hyper-parenting and over-scheduling families, concerns that Fred Engh and I share.

Something about raising kids has changed; parenting is now America's most competitive adult sport. Once upon a time there was a children's world, as in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, where kids were the bosses who could do what they wanted to. Playing fields used to be part of this children's world, even for parents who loved sports. Today, many have become places where adults congregate to see how their children measure up in the early phases of the race to Harvard.

It is never too early to give your kid a leg up. Especially since Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, ambitious parents believe that you have to start sports enrichment early and combine it with intense devotion. Maybe that will convince elite schools that their kids have a passion. So they enroll six year olds in competitive soccer, even though these kids are too young to understand its rules or master the complex physical challenges of controlling a ball while running down a field - or, sometimes, even which goal they are aiming at.

Today, everyone is piling more work on kids. To give them a head start, school and homework have intensified (I am called as an expert who says that middle school recess should not be abolished because kids need time to relax too,) and family time has been sacrificed. Kids participate in so many scheduled activities that many are sleep deprived. In just the past 20 years, structured sports time has doubled, unstructured children's activities have declined by 50%, household conversations have become far less frequent, family dinners have declined 33%, and family vacations have decreased by 28%.

Thankfully, in part because of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, many coaches remain committed to kids having fun and athletics making children better people. But for families who believe that winning the parenting Olympics is everything, coaches hold keys to success and a valuable college scholarship. For these parents, demanding, intense -- even abusive -- coaches who train "winners," are sought out. Marriages are put on hold. A parent who is serious about winning will sacrifice a romantic Saturday night dinner for their ten-year-old's ice hockey practice, every week if need be.

What also gets sacrificed when kids' sports get this intense is the fun kids can have playing, the ease they can get with their bodies, and the idea that everyone can get pleasure from athletics at every age, whether chosen first or last, whether in childhood, adulthood, or old age. Kids want to play. As Fred Engh points out in his wonderful Why Johnny Hates Sports, 78% of children would rather play on a losing team than warm the bench for one that wins.

The American Academy of Pediatrics warned parents about the dangers of competing in demanding, incredibly competitive sports. They strongly advised that children play multiple sports and specialize in one, if they must, only after puberty.

I can't speak as an elite athlete. But my friend Donna deVarona won 2 gold medals in the 1964 Olympics. She feels that specialization and the competitive demands it puts on youngsters too early in life leads to mental burnout and potential physical problems. So she refuses to let her own children train and compete in only one sport year round. Her own Olympic coach advised her that cross training, not early specialization, is what future elite athletes need. Donna also makes family time a priority over practices. She won't let her kids play travel soccer because she insists on family dinners together, and on vacations where her children can take a respite from the pressures of a rigorous academic schedule.

Is anyone listening? Take elite gymnastics again, where my daughter excelled. Many youngsters are practicing 5, 7 or 9 times or more a week. Though few will ever make the Olympics and many -- including those who do -- will do lifelong damage to their joints and spinal columns, coaches tempt their parents with stories about how two of their last level 10 gymnasts got into Brown. Should we be concerned that 90% of competitive female gymnasts get their first period a year or two late? A 1996 study reported disordered eating in 100% of elite female gymnasts and osteoporosis in more than half. Are they chosen for their short stature or does gymnastics impede height? No one can say for sure. What should I say to the elite gymnast who had both shoulders replaced, twice, in her thirties? Are they examples for your daughter to follow? Not mine!

Should we be concerned that orthopedic surgeons recently reported a w orrisome increase in recreation-linked injuries among 5-14 year olds? They debated whether these kids had 2.2 million bone fractures, dislocations, and muscle injuries last year, or 3.5 million. Should we really be teaching "heading" to our 9 year-old soccer players when we suspect it can cause brain damage?

How is this pressure for kids? I asked a 14-year-old boy who was a very good athlete but only a so-so student what it was like to excel at sports. He said that it was nice in some ways, but he would prefer just playing ball with his friends.

"Why?" I asked.

"I'm judged in school work," he replied. "I'm judged when I play ball. I just want some place where I'm not judged!"

Does empirical evidence support the "winning is everything" notion? Forty years ago the Gluecks did a classic study of potential juvenile delinquents in the Boston area; 40 years later George Vailliant, a Harvard psychiatrist, asked these people -then in their 50's -- about their lives. Despite sophisticated statistics, the variable that most predicted a good life was neither poverty nor severe abuse. Rather, what helped them - and protected some very vulnerable children from a bad life - was one good relationship. Every study I know correlates happiness with relationships, not with wealth or fame. So why do we tell our kids that winning is everything and even think about loving our kids only for what they can accomplish?

If we put so much energy into organized kids' sports, we end up devaluing true play, which needs no purpose beyond the pleasure of being. Today's children are so tightly scheduled that many have never invented a backyard game or had time to just lollygag with friends. No one has ever rewarded his or her joy in discovering and examining.

We act as if a child being bored is a dreaded enemy; parents become akin to cruise ship activities directors to avoid the kids being bored. I think that parenting is a higher calling! Actually, in moderation boredom can stimulate kids to think and create. America's economic success is based on people -- like David Packard, Bill Gates, and of course, Steven Spielberg -- who daydreamed and tinkered with a vision of their own. Kids need some time to be alone, to rehearse in their minds, to relax and veg out, something that video games actually do for many boys. It may be their one "Zen" experience where they can get away from the pressures and actually feel centered.

I know several professional athletes. All are very gifted athletically; the ones I know are people I admire and respect. But not one had a background I'd wish for my kids. Each became passionate about athletics because it was the way out of a poor economic or family situation. Furthermore, only 1% of kids who start as competitive athletes get sports scholarships. The real scandal is that numerous kids, usually from minority groups, are recruited as workers in the multi-billion dollar industry we call college sports. It is the last place that workers are used without pay - what was once called slavery. These athletes are used as professionals, are not paid, and often leave the institution used up, with no degree, no severance pay, no career, no useful skills, and no way to make a living.

I admire elite athletes. But holding up the fanaticism that goes into winning Olympic gold as a model for every other kid to emulate offers a dangerous psychological message: Everything in life should be sacrificed for Olympic gold. Many play, few win. Most of us will enjoy sports; few of us will be pros. We will have peak experiences in our lives... every decade or two! Our ads tell kids to "just say no" to drugs and premature sex. But then our cheering for the gold says that life is about super-highs. Which is it?

Furthermore, we forget about teaching children character. It is like discipline, which comes from the word "disciple." Christ's disciples followed him because they wanted to emulate the way of life he personified. Kids emulate parents and coaches in the same way. Are they modeling admirable behavior? Are their words and actions consistent? Do they encourage you to play your best but actually act like only winning counts? Do they shout expletives at the 16 year-old umpire for a bad call, or do they criticize the parent who does so? Do they secretly praise a player who injured the other team's star or do they punish unsportsmanlike behavior?

If coaches and parents say a kid ought to work constantly to be excellent - no down time or fun for fun's sake -- our children may conclude that we don't consider joy, and family time, important. Yet an old Jewish tradition holds that in the afterlife, we will have to answer to God for every pleasure He permitted us in which we did not partake.

Parents need to let kids be kids again, to give them back their lives. In standing around the athletic fields and making kids' sports success the most important matter in parents' lives, in becoming participants in the parenting Olympics and stealing their freedom and childhood, parents have done a further harm: they have given kids a sense that the whole world revolves around them, often robbing them of the chance to see adults being the intelligent adults they are. Today's parents are at least as educated as their parents were; when they were younger, they were concerned with politics, music, art, sports, business, world events, and the like. So why do they give kids the sense that all they can discuss seriously are strollers, kid's schedules, and activities?

I know that I am preaching to the choir. You are the people trying to reverse these trends. Thank you for bringing sanity to today's madness, and for trying to encourage warm relationships with children - the ones we all need. Today's parents need more than pressured athletics; they need time with each other as husband and wife, and time with their children with no goal in mind beyond the pleasure of spending time. On walks, shooting hoops, playing Monopoly, whatever! Somehow many of us are insecure and doubt we ourselves have what it takes to raise our kids well. So we entrust them to "experts," coaches and tutors. Yet what our children really need is us, just quiet, unstructured, unpressured time with us. My fondest memories were of fishing with my Dad. The greatest gift we can give them is the deep, inner conviction that they don't have to perform for us to love and cherish them. As the Billy Joel song says, "No need for clever conversation. I love you just the way you are." That's what I need, what you need, and what our kids need.


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