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Are Kids' Sports Too Competitive?

Issue #4: Getting Real
An increasing number of pediatricians, sports-medicine doctors, athletes, and even sportswriters are speaking up about the dangers of "too often, too much, too soon" and putting pressure for change on the youth-sports system. Here and there are signs of improvement. The Little League has imposed strict restrictions on its young pitchers. And the Minnesota-based group Balance4Success, which calls itself a "grassroots initiative of parents," is urging families to  reclaim their Sundays as "a sports-free day."

But true change will require parents to do some serious rethinking about what we want for our kids. A good start is being realistic, says Mark Hyman, author of Until It Hurts, whose own son, a pitcher, suffered an overuse injury. "The truth is, only a tiny percentage of athletic kids will win scholarships or go pro. Why not focus on what's attainable and in your child's long-term interest instead: gaining self- confidence, making friends, being active and competitive."

"Your job as a parent," adds Gould, "isn't to produce another Derek Jeter or Michael Phelps - it's to make sure your kids fall in love with activity in a lasting way so they become healthy adults." And if a child falls passionately in love with a sport and has a real talent for it, he or she will excel anyway, without the insanity of early training and competition.

Also important: Avoid early specialization. Encourage your kid "to try a variety of sports to build up a base of  motor skills and see what he or she really enjoys playing," says Gould. Those kids "who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after reaching the age of puberty tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries, and adhere to sports play longer than those who specialize early," the AAP has emphasized in two position papers.

We need to listen to our children as well - and to our own instincts. When a child's play starts deteriorating or we can see he's limping or favoring an arm, he's not okay; he's hurt and needs a break. If a young player "starts making excuses to miss practice or claims to have repeated injuries even though the doctor can't find anything specific wrong," says Dr. Stricker, "it may be a red flag that although he's afraid to say so, he really wants out." 

Most of all, we need to remember that we have the right to turn away. When Kwan's third daughter asked to join a travel softball team in the fifth grade, her parents refused. The girl, now in high school, swims, plays tennis, and is in the marching band. "A lot of people are overwhelmed by what's going on with kids' sports and don't like it but feel there's no alternative," she says. "You need the confidence to just say no."