Play Ball! The crisis in today’s youth sports

By Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Founder and Chief Editor of Pediatrics Now

Mother Nurture

We have been incredibly spoiled in New England with the Patriot’s Super Bowl runs and the Red Sox finally winning the World Series. Watching our sports heroes reach the pinnacles of their careers is exciting for fans of all ages. It’s no wonder kids try to emulate their sports heroes, and parents smile at the notion of that dream coming true for their child. Then we blink and realize it’s just a child’s dream. After all, we understand that our kids have as much as chance of fulfilling that dream as finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Or do we?

Do you realize that only 0.03% of high school athletes will make it to the pros? In fact, 99.9% of athletes will never play at the professional level regardless of how good they are. “Youth sports are about building better kids, not building better athletes”, says Dr. Bruce Svare, author of Reforming Sports Before the Clock Runs Out and Director of the National Institute for Sports Reform (www.NISR.ORG). The performance pressure is so extreme on young athletes while in elementary school that 70% are burning out and dropping out of sports by middle school. Moreover, Dr. Svare points out that “athletic brilliance prior to puberty has no relationship to athletic success after puberty”. In fact, some of our greatest sports heroes did not even begin their sport until well into the teenage years.

Dave Wohl, Assistant Coach to the Boston Celtics agrees. “Michael Jordan was actually got cut from his high school team”, says Wohl, “and I didn’t start playing basketball until after I was 10”. Coach Wohl notes that there is a huge mismatch in body types before puberty that may give some kids an athletic edge while young that inevitably disappears once their peers catch up to them in growth.

Both Dr. Svare and Coach Wohl feel kids can learn some important life lessons in sports, if the sports are structured correctly. In addition to the many health and fitness benefits, sports teaches kids how to work in a team. Sports teach kids how to push themselves to their best level. And, sports teach kids that failure happens at times but that life goes on.

It’s natural for parents and coaches to want children to try their best. But kids are instead being told that their best is not good enough. Parents rationalize that it is acceptable for their young child to be benched so that their team can win. And, we turn a blind eye on the bad behavior and poor sportsmanship of other coaches and parents, all in the name of winning.

Coach Wohl is amazed how many parents ask him what is wrong with their young athlete because their child is not focused enough. He fondly remembers his dad’s comments after his games as a child: “Did you play as hard as you can? Then hold your head up”.

As if the burn out rate is not cause enough for concern, injuries are occurring in young athletes in alarming rates. Kids are being pushed mentally and physically in directions they are just not wired to go while still so young. Their bodies and souls are being asked to perform at a level really meant for much older kids – high school and beyond. Before that point, the emphasis should be on fun, skill building and teamwork. It’s like trying to race the Indy500 in a Toyota Camry. Sure, it will run and may even win but the engine will likely be permanently shot in the process. A Camry’s engine is just not designed to perform at the speeds and endurance levels of the Indy500. What is amazing is we’d never ride a car not meant for a race yet we put our kids’ bodies in that situation in youth sports far too early for their growing bodies.

We seem to accept when our children express a dislike for certain foods, TV shows, books, or even friends; but we often fail to accept our child may not like a certain sport. Childhood is really a journey of exploration and it’s actually the child who has the map; we are merely guides. There’s a world of sports and activities to choose from – but we need to remember that it’s our child who is participating in that activity, not us. Even more so, we need to remember that just because a child is good at an activity, does not mean that he will want to continue that activity or do that activity in an organized way.

Add to this mix new studies and reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics that highlight the need for our kids to have more unstructured play time and it is clear we need to take a step back and rethink how our kids spend their after school time in general. Reforming our children’s after school lives and youth sports will not happen over night but we can make huge positive strides by just changing our own expectations and behavior. I truly believe that when parents learn to just encourage their children without pushing, the clock will start to slow. When parents learn to enjoy watching their child learn new skills and new found confidence, the clock will slow even more.

But the clock won’t truly stop and reset until our children start having fun again. It could happen today. Strike that. It should happen today. All you have to do is let your child play what ever they want just for the fun of it.

Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D., F.A.A.P., Founder and Chief Editor of Pediatrics Now and Your Child’s Health Blog, is a syndicated columnist and expert in child health. Dr. O’Keeffe’s monthly column is read by over 1 million readers in print and on-line. She appears monthly on New England Cable News’ Good Morning Live, is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Media Section, and is on the Board of Advisors for Parents and Kids and Amiglia.

Dr. O’Keeffe practices urgent care pediatrics and lives in Massachusetts with her husband and 2 daughters. Dr. O’Keeffe can be reached through her website:

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