Another View: The reality of Olympic dreams for children

by David Light Shields

Shields is co-director of the Mendelson Center for Sport, Character, and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. p(text). Not everyone can be a Sarah Hughes.

The 16-year-old darling of the recent Olympics began skating when she was 3. In light of the glitz and glamour that followed her stunningly beautiful performance, it might be tempting for star-struck parents to sign up their own toddlers for ice-skating lessons in hopes of one day reaping Olympic glory. Or maybe it’s baseball camp for your son in hopes of someday gaining a college scholarship.

When we think about the best way to organize our sports opportunities, we need to consider the casualties that vastly outnumber the occasional prodigy. Many children have wonderful experiences competing in local recreational leagues. But far too many are pushed to excel at far too young an age.

For every Sarah Hughes there are hundreds of kids who go through life scarred from their childhood sports experience. They bear psychological wounds unintentionally inflicted by well-meaning parents. These are the kids who specialized in a single sport way too early, and who devoted countless afternoons or weekends to their budding athletic talents, all while neglecting other areas of growth.

These are the kids who were pushed, cajoled or simply steered onto travel teams and elite competitions during their elementary school days.

In a land where we want to believe that children can “be whatever they want to be” if only they try hard enough, these kids are set up for a hard fall. Sure, they’re talented, but reality eventually catches up.

There are two problems with early sports specialization.

First, among those kids who look incredibly gifted at age 6, few will still look as gifted at age 10, let alone 15. Most of the difference in early athletic skill relates more to different rates of physical development than to major differences in athletic talent.

Second, even among those rare few who truly are gifted, the numbers are stacked against them. After all, there are fewer positions available on an Olympic team than there are for brain surgeons. Of the 35 million kids participating in youth sports, only a small fraction of a percent will make a college team.

While sports can provide a terrific opportunity for kids to have fun and develop lifelong skills, these goals are undermined when parents make a huge investment in their children’s sports careers. Fifth-graders don’t need position coaches or personal trainers. It is simply inappropriate to focus family life around a third-grader’s sports schedule; to give up vacations and togetherness around meals, weekends and holidays.

I’ve seen the pattern repeat itself too frequently: Parents have a talented child; they invest heavily in that child’s sports experience and encourage specialization. Then by high school the child has peaked, other kids have caught up, and the child ends up feeling deeply troubled and guilty that the parents’ “investment” failed to pay off. These children carry the burden of guilt, the shame of unfulfilled expectations.

So get your kids involved in sports. Help them have fun. But keep it all in perspective

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