Kids and Sports: Fly Balls or Butterflies?
THE PHYSICIAN AND SPORTSMEDICINE - VOL 27 - NO. 1 - JANUARY 98
According to Time magazine (Nov 30, 1998), Dr Lawrence Diller—pediatrician, family therapist, and author of Running on Ritalin—believes that "many Americans are so worried about their...children's chances for success that they place impossible pressures on kids to perform at younger and younger ages....There used to be different niches for people with differences in talent, skills, and personalities...but Americans are becoming more and more programmed to force their children into a mold." "There is an emotional cost," Diller told Time, "and eventually there will be a physical cost of taking square and rectangular people and fitting them into round holes."
Diller's emphasis is on the overuse of pharmaceutical "performance enhancers" such as Ritalin. But his thoughts can be applied to the often overspecialized, overpressured world of youth athletics, which continues to exact emotional and physical costs on young athletes (see Dr John DiFiori's excellent article, "Overuse Injuries in Children and Adolescents," page 75).
Many parents, programs, and coaches are already providing nurturing, age-appropriate places for active play—an obvious and important goal for children's long-term development. For the many kids who would rather chase butterflies than baseballs, options that emphasize fun, health, and variety are preferable to those pursuing the "round hole" goal of competitive athletics. This concept may be surprisingly unfamiliar to sports-minded individuals, because a shift in thinking is required: Participation need not start with competition; instead, the child's choice to be competitive can evolve out of participation.
Even for the handful of self-motivated children for whom early sport specialization, year-round play, and expectations of high achievement are appropriate, a great deal of care with both physical and emotional growth is required to avoid potential detrimental effects. No child's self-worth should be enmeshed in sports performance to the exclusion of other important contributors to psychological growth and emotional maturity. Success in competitive sports (as traditionally defined; ie, winning) is nearly always short term; young athletes without alternate sources of inner strength are set up to fail, sooner or later.
Such concerns about overpressured programs are widely recognized, and some progress has been made. Examples include limits on the number of pitches allowed in Little League games and higher age-eligibility limits for elite female tennis players. More important than rules and regulations, though, is our ability to embrace an attitude that is inclusive of all kids—"square" and "round."
As physicians, we can make additional efforts to shape the attitudes of parents, who often find themselves without guidance on issues related to sport. In particular, we must be careful when we assess chronic overuse injuries in children and adolescents to be sure that the kids are not being pushed too far and too hard or being forced into a mold that doesn't suit them. As an important information source for parents, our central message should be that, for the overwhelming majority of children, active play is for fun and for health, plain and simple.