Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bad Sports or Not Enough Sports: What's the real problem?

Did anyone read Robert Lypsyte's article, "'Jock Culture' permeates life'" in
USA Today last Thursday? His central point is: "A 'winning is everything' notion
starts in the littlest of leagues. Lessons of hard work and fair play give way
to 'gain the edge at any cost.' But what happens when this type of thinking is
adapted by CEOs, police officers, or politicians?" (USA Today, Thursday April
10th, 2008, pg 11A). Is the desire for immediate gratification permeating all
aspects of our culture? Are the some of the negative lessons of sports stronger
than the values of families and schools?

These are particularly worrisome questions as we are seeing parents with young
children in sports devote most weekends to games and travel looking to provide
for their children and gain the "competitive edge." But as Lipsyte recognizes,
his most significant point is about the kids who are "weeded out" of sports at
young ages. Many sport experts suggest that youth will drop out of sports at
high rates by the time they are 13-years-old. Often the number one reason for
dropping out is that children no longer are having fun. In fact, the elephant in
the room is that not enough kids are playing! Mohoney and colleagues (2006)
conducted a social policy report on organized activities and revealed that in
contrast to what many folks believe, an alarmingly large majority of young
people are not engaged in any form of organized activities at all. Many of us
know that the highest rates of delinquency in children and adolescents occur
between the hours of 2 and 6 PM. The biggest problem for our country's youth is
that we don't have enough teams, fields, coaches, teachers, and activities
available for them. Either the programs are too competitive, too expensive, or
simply nonexistent. Physical education alone has been dropped from many public
school programs.

Yes, as Lipsyte and many others suggest (me included), our efforts should be
directed to the teaching of character in the context of sports to build strong
leaders for the future. But even at a more base level, we need to fund programs
and resources so our children have a place to play and are coached by
character-driven adults. As we mention in our book and my colleague Dr. Steve
Durant often says, "Sports don't build character - People do" (Ginsburg, Durant,
and Baltzell, 2006). But until there are resources for more kids and their
coaches, we will continue to see a sharp split between those who are good enough
to play and able to afford it and those who lack either the talent or
opportunity.


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Monday, April 07, 2008

Will Playing Sports Get Our Kids Into College?
(Also posted on Psychology Today's website).

What if playing sports had absolutely no influence on college acceptance? What
if playing for THE elite travel team meant only that our children were playing
more games at a higher level with no free time for weekend relaxation? Would
playing youth sports hold the same importance it does in present day culture?

I think not. Families across the nation would be relieved. They could have their
weekends back to go to church or synagogue, have a barbeque in the neighborhood,
spend time together as a family, save money on gas, and limit the number of
hours in the minivan. Everyone would sleep more. Parents might actually have
time to do something for themselves. Downtime might return as a realistic
option.

The more I speak on this topic to parent groups and schools, the more I come to
understand that the number one driving force behind the youth sport frenzy is
the hope that athletics will help our children get a scholarship or at least
give them a competitive advantage over another child with equal or better
academic standing.

The chances our children will play college sports are slim. Less than 5% in most
cases as estimated by the NCAA and the National Alliance of Youth Sports. Do the
math. Most of our children aren't going to play college sports. It's unlikely
they will get a "leg up" in the college application process through sport
activities. And scholarships are even more remote. As Bill Pennington wrote in
the New York Times a few weeks back, full scholarships are rarely given. In
fact, most scholarships fail to match the years of annual youth sport bills that
include membership fees and extensive travel bills. Is it really worth our time,
energy and dollars to invest in such an unlikely outcome?

Early sport training, early sport specialization, and travel teams do not
guarantee success. In fact, there is no solid research evidence that early
specialization helps performance. But there is plenty of evidence about the risk
of burnout, over-use injury and stress from early specialization and
over-training. Ask any pediatrician or sports medicine doctor, and they will
tell you that their practices are inundated with child over-use-in-sport
injuries.

So why play sports? Why are we enrolling our kids in Little League baseball or
encouraging them to try out for the high school team? There are countless
reasons why children should play sports. Studies reveal that the benefits range
from increased cardiovascular health and reduced risk of obesity to improved
social skills and overall mental health, just to name a few. Sports are an
opportunity to cultivate character in our young people so that they may be
versatile adults capable of independent thought and leadership. Physical
activity helps them become more comfortable and confident in their own bodies.

When it comes down to it, I am going to take a leap that these are the reasons
most parents want their children engaged in sports. The powerful current of our
win-at-all-cost culture plays off of our fears. We worry that our children will
miss out and fail to reach their full potential if we don't push them hard
enough.

If this were the stock market, would we continue to devote hard-earned dollars
to a long-shot of athletic scholarship? And it is not only our pockets that are
at risk. Some children pushed to the extremes in sports either become injured,
burned out, or even worse, turned off from sports entirely. The safest
investment is in our children's overall health which entails a balance in their
sport, and academic and artistic activities. There is nothing wrong with
encouraging excellence in athletics, but sports are more likely a vehicle to
build life skills applicable to life after college as opposed to a ticket to
college.


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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Psychology of Sport - From the games of youth to the big leagues

Playing youth sports has drastically changed in the last twenty years. When I
was young, we played pickup games in my neighborhood. Basketball, wiffleball,
and touch football - without the involvement and supervision of adults - were
our games until dark. Presently, neighborhood, unstructured play has dropped
off. Both parents work. Many of us worry, "Who will take care of our kids? Will
they be abducted if we give them freedom to play?" Organized sports seem to
assuage these concerns.


But, I am seeing increasing numbers of burnout and overuse injuries among our
youth. I am seeing parents under great financial and emotional strain trying to
keep up with an overwhelming sports' schedule that overtakes family dinners and
dominates weekend activities. And for what? It's unlikely any of our kids will
receive athletic college scholarships, despite all of our fantasies (mine
included).


The physical and emotional health benefits from playing sports are being
undermined by extreme training and intense adult pressures. Among our teen
athletes, I am seeing increasing demands on them to perform at exceedingly high
levels. Cheating, steroid use, overtraining and rage are rearing their ugly
heads in the service of achieving that savored "competitive edge."

In this blog, I hope to address these concerning issues related to youth sports
and their connections to the collegiate and professional sport world. I hope to
facilitate a dialogue among parents about what is healthy and edifying for their
children in a fast-paced, win-at-all-cost sporting world.



Richard D. Ginsburg, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist and Sport Psychology Consultant

www.whosegameisitanyway.com