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The Risks and Rewards of Youth Sports

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I got an e-mail from a neighborhood dad the other day asking me if my son, Alex, would join his indoor travel soccer league that plays Friday nights at 7 p.m. “This is probably going to sound bad,” I typed back, “but Friday at 7 p.m. is cocktail hour in my house.” I added a smiley face so he'd think I was joking (I really wasn't). Alex is 5. Five! Why does he need to be on a travel team? Yes, he loves soccer, and as a former athlete, I am all for youth sports. But his rec league seems like enough right now. I'll have years to sacrifice my weekends for Alex's sports schedules, so why start when he's still in kindergarten?

I'll tell you the reason: It's called the professionalization of youth sports, and it's happening in gyms and on fields and rinks across our country, says Dan Gould, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. “Kids are competing at younger and younger ages—and focusing too soon on training, performance, and outcome.” You've probably heard about parents who hold their kids back from kindergarten until they're 6 so they'll be more ready academically—now there are some who do it for the sole purpose of having their kid be bigger, faster, and more coordinated than his peers. “I see kids practicing six and seven days a week,” says Elizabeth Pieroth, Psy.D., a board-certified neuropsychologist who treats patients from 5 years old to pro (she's the concussion specialist for the Chicago Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox, and Fire). “I'm very pro sports—for all the good things kids get out of them,” adds Pieroth, whose sons play hockey and baseball. “But it's gotten so crazy-competitive: Are we burning them out?”

Starting sports young is not the problem; it's the intensity and the specialization (playing the same travel sport year-round) that troubles so many experts. “With the exception of gymnastics and figure skating, ideally kids wouldn't be focusing solely on one sport until they're around fourteen,” says Gould. Before then it can lead to injury because growing bodies need a break. And there are benefits to being a multi-sport youth athlete. “Playing a variety of sports allows kids to use different muscles and increases cognitive brain activity,” says Julie Gilchrist, M.D., pediatrician and medical epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Kids who are involved in a bunch of sports get cross-training, if you will.”

Wondering how to deal with the head-scratching, mouth-gaping, how-do-I-not-screw-you-up-for-life stuff that sports throws your way? We've got it covered.

Sitch: Your 5-year-old is the one picking weeds on the soccer field—but all her friends play. Keep her on the team or try again in a few years?

Solution: Becoming distracted is normal at this age. The real question is, does she want to play or are you dragging her to the games? “Ask her if she enjoys being part of the team,” says Patrick Cohn, Ph.D., a youth sports psychologist in Orlando and founder of youthsportspsy chology.com. “If so, she may like it for the social aspect rather than the playing part, and that's OK. As she develops her skills, she may want to join in more.”

Sitch: Your kid gets mad and cries when she loses

Solution: “Ask her what she hopes will happen in the game, and why—she may think you or the coach expects her to win every time, so you need to make your goals for her clear as well,” says Cohn. Then you can help her set and focus on manageable tasks to perform (making great throws, catching the ball, listening to the coach). “Don't dwell on errors or losses,” says Cohn. “You can talk to her about what she did well or improved on after the game—use it as an opportunity to get better instead of lose confidence.”

That said, all athletes, even the youngest ones, must know that losing is a part of sports, adds Cohn. Tell her about times when you or Uncle Steve or an older sibling had to deal with a heartbreaking loss, too, so she sees that it happens to everyone.

Sitch: The coach's frequent yelling and emphasis on winning is freaking you out.

Solution: Give the coach your feedback in private—not when he's busy coaching or in front of the kids, recommends Cohn. “Explain that you want your young athlete to focus on the process, not on the product,” notes Cohn. “You can say that you're worried that focusing too much on winning could undermine his confidence. This is a common challenge—kids begin to pressure themselves and start worrying about failing or focus too much on avoiding mistakes.” End your conversation positively—compliment him on something good that he does and add that you know he wants what's best for the kids on the team, too.

Sitch: You want to steer your child toward one sport—or away from another.

Solution: Cohn and most experts recommend parents introduce athletes to several sports and then allow them to decide which they prefer, but that's not to say you can't be a little sneaky. “Don't introduce her to sports you do not like,” says Cohn. Also, kids tend to gravitate toward the sports you play at home. So if you want a future Tiger Woods, get a bucket of balls and start swinging. Still, some of this will be out of your control (e.g., when the entire third-grade class decides that hockey is the coolest and everyone must play), so you have to be prepared to either cave or stay strong.

Are you coach material? 

What to ask yourself before you sign up—from parents who've been there.

1. Am I really going to want to put on a bra and markup before 9 a.m. on a Saturday? “Being held accountable every Saturday for practice and Sundays for soccer games was a lot. A coach has to organize and notify the parents on uniforms, cancellations, rotate a snack schedule, set up the field, attend board meetings, etc. I did find the commitment overwhelming at times, but it was so worth it.” —MEGHAN SHEAR, mom of Ayden, 5

2. Can I remember that these are not the Mets/Patriots/Lakers/________(fill in the team you scream at)? “My focus is on fun, so in practice we play games and give pats on the back to everyone. You'd think this would be a no-brainer, but I see so many coaches making their players stand in line while barking orders for them to run drills. Kids come back to my team season after season.” —WILL YANDELL, dad of Luke, 10, and Sawyer, 5

3. Can I put the parents behaving badly in their place? “From time to time there are parents who enjoy coaching from the sideline, or opposing coaches who act as if they have a World Cup team. With my parents, it's a conversation (which is not the most comfortable) that usually gets things on track. Opposing coaches need to be ignored, unless they start coaching my players, which has led to some (also uncomfortable) conversations on the field.” —W.Y.

4. Can I pretend that my own kids, um, isn't really my kid? “Some favoritism is inevitable and expected, but if you are sacrificing the growth, learning, fun, or experience of the other players for the sake of your son or daughter, you will run into problems. The easiest way I have found to help with this is to approach my team not as my son and nine others, but to treat all ten of the players as my own.” —TRAVIS COPLEY, dad of Tanner, 9, and Tyson, 5

5. Can I leave it on the field? “If kids see their coach being a poor sport after a loss, they will develop this same attitude. They should see their coach highlighting the positives while building from the negatives. If your goal is to win every game by as many points as possible, do us all a favor and don't coach. If your goal is to teach, mentor, and build confidence, youth sports needs you!” —T.C.

There's always one parent who takes it all a little too seriously. How to tell if it's you:

  • You arrive at games 30 minutes ahead of time to warm up…your cheering voice.
  • The following phrases come out of your mouth: Get him! Get her! Get them! Get your head out of your a**!
  • You get laryngitis after every game.
  • There are no other parents within a 10-foot radius of you.
  • The coach runs the other way when he sees you walking toward him.
  • When you tell your child you have to miss her game, she looks relieved.
  • You need a stiff drink after every game. Even the morning ones.
  • You have never, not ever, sat during a game.
  • You own a bullhorn.

Bumps, Bruises and Sprains

One third of all kids' injuries occur during sports activity, but before you bubble-wrap your little athlete, read this:

Sports update: Alex did wind up joining that indoor soccer league (turns out games are all held in the same nearby gym about ten minutes from our house). I was a little wary as I watched the kids plow into each other (and the walls) at top speed. But the only injury was a concussion one of the kids got when he fell off his kitchen counter. Yes, sports can be dangerous but not more than, say, climbing trees (or countertops). Four ways to keep your co-pays down:

1. Get in the Game Parents need to know proper tackling technique for football—and proper header technique for soccer and checking technique for hockey, etc. USA Football's Heads Up program has instructional videos for parents (usafootball.com).

2. Don't Push the Glory Positions Having a star pitcher sounds great…until he's having shoulder surgery at 13. “Beware of overuse injuries,” says Pieroth. Unlike acute injuries (broken bones, concussions, and sprains), overuse injuries develop as a result of repetitive strain (think pitching, throwing, running, shooting) or playing when a previous injury hasn't healed properly.

3. Remember Kids Grow—Fast Whether it's a fielder's mask, a cup, shoulder pads, or a helmet, be sure sports equipment not only has the most up-to-date technology but that it fits, and that he wears it consistently and correctly.

4. Meddle a Bit You don't want to be the one pushing for more playing time, but you can get up in your coach's biz about safety. Training in first-aid and injury prevention is a must—especially when it comes to concussion—and a first-aid kit should be on hand at all times. (The CDC has online courses at cdc.gov/concussion.)

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