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Are Kids' Sports Too Competitive?

Issue #1: Visions of Grandeur
Parents have accepted the professionalized youth-sports scene for a number of reasons, Gould notes, not the least of which is the promise of a hefty college scholarship to help with tuition bills that continue to skyrocket in the face of our humbled savings accounts. And while we all know that the chances of our kids actually becoming seriously well-paid professional athletes are slim to none, we can't help but think?maybe. Ego's involved, too: What parent isn't bursting with pride when a crowd of spectators erupts in cheers as her child makes a game-saving goal, hit, or catch? Finally, there's fear. The more we see other kids starting specialized training early, and investing in ever pricier equipment, the more we worry that if ours don't, they'll be left behind. "There's a constant buzzing among parents," says Helen Nicholson Kwan, a Bettendorf, IA, mother of five: What teams are your kids playing on? What camps are they in? Which pitching coach are you going to? "You start to think 'Have I chosen the right one? What if they won't be good enough?'" Kwan notes.

What's gotten lost in all the buzz and anxiety, however, is an awareness of the realities of child development. Children simply can't "get" certain sports skills until they're ready to learn them. "The motor skills required to play a sport continue to develop and fine-tune through childhood," says Paul Stricker, M.D., a pediatric and adolescent sports-medicine specialist and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Sports Medicine & Fitness. "For instance, the ability to track a moving object is immature until around nine. That's why T-ball is more appropriate for five- and six-year-olds. Over the years, there are changes in how kids  respond to heat and dehydration. And no matter how much you push training, improving aerobic capacity beyond ten percent is difficult to accomplish until puberty." The same kind of  ongoing development occurs in mental capabilities important to sports prowess, like the ability to process instructions, make rapid decisions, and handle tasks involving complex memory. "You can't teach an eight-year-old a long list of plays," says  Dr. Stricker.  "He won't be able to remember them."

Training a child with an eye on future greatness also fails to consider the fact that kids' bodies change enormously at puberty-and not always in ways that make them better players: The kid who's always been tallest and fastest may well be overtaken by the one who suddenly gains 30 pounds and shoots up a foot. "When Michael Jordan started high school at fifteen, he was only five nine and didn't make the varsity basketball team," says Bigelow. "There's no one in the world who can predict a future athlete's talent at age ten."