After getting together with some fellow grade school Moms last weekend, particularly the ones with 4th/5th/6th graders, I was blown away by their discussion about sports. Keep in my mind, my oldest just finished Kindergarten, so I have a very limited perspective on this topic. I had no idea, for example, that many kids tend to specialize in only ONE sport by middle school. One mom explained that her son started playing baseball, soccer, and basketball in early elementary. By 3rd grade he had to drop baseball, and although he was in competitive leagues in the other two sports, he had to drop soccer by 5th grade in order to devote the time required for his travel basketball team. Additionally, these Moms described some of the local sports camps run by high school level coaches, and how these (slightly over-zealous) coaches are essentially 'grooming' kids for their particular sport starting in middle school. By the time these kids reach high school, these coaches expect/favor those who only play their sport. Keep in mind, these were very normal, cool, level-headed, everyday Moms...by no means was I put off by their stories...it was just eye-opening to hear about how different the sports environment is today versus when we were growing up.
It was surprising / unfathomable to me to hear about kids having to choose only one sport, not only for high school, but by 5th grade? What happened to the days when kids could play various sports throughout grade school: soccer, basketball, baseball, tennis, hockey, swimming, etc.? The only limited choice we had to make was in high school, if two sports overlapped for a particular season (i.e. swimming versus soccer, both in the spring). It was very typical for an athletic kid to play three different sports in high school, one in the fall, winter, and spring. Ok, I suspect I am going to have to figure out a way to get over this already!
In my humble opinion, kids have much to gain from playing more than one sport. First, there are many (various) benefits from playing both team and individual sports. The cooperation/teamwork involved and the dedication/commitment to a team and the resulting bonds that develop provide endless lessons and enjoyment. Some of my favorite memories from growing up are from playing team sports. Alternatively, individual sports foster hard work, self discipline, and the ability to set and work toward achieving a goal (i.e. beating your personal record for a particular event). Furthermore, from a sports medicine perspective, recent research shows it is unhealthy for developing bodies and the muscles involved to play only one sport year-round. Sports related injuries and complications are on the rise. Finally, in terms of these children's mind frame, I suspect we may see earlier and earlier burnout from such intensity dedicated to only one sport at such an early age.
As a sidebar, from a personal perspective, I started speed skating (yes, such a random sport, I know) at age 4. Perhaps our family's love for skating began with my sister figure skating and my brother playing hockey. Between their practices one day, my Mom observed a speed skating practice and discovered the appeal of this sport schedule-wise. They consolidated both girls/boys and all ages together into one 2 hour practice. After waking at the crack-of-dawn for hockey practices and submitting to the schedule demands of figure skating, they decided to give it a try. It was an instant hit for everyone, and of course, as the youngest in my family, I had to get in on the action at age four. The competition evolved to traveling across country for meets several weekends a year, practicing 5 nights a week, and training (almost) year round with 'dry training' in the summers by the time I was in middle school. Yet, we loved it so much and had so much fun, we did not feel pressured or view it as a chore or a sacrifice.....perhaps my parents sitting around chilly ice rinks for endless hours may debate otherwise ; )
Nevertheless, this level of intensity for one sport was relatively unusual at the time. With the exception of the occasional select soccer team player or a year-round swimmer, I did not have many friends who played a sport year-round. It progressed to a point around 6th/7th grade at which I would have had to drop everything else I loved (soccer, basketball, swimming, dancing, piano, etc.) and move north to Minnesota to train at near-Olympic level training camps to stay competitive. The choice was easy at the time, partly because my parents never would have let me move north to a training camp, and partly because I was frankly burnt out by then. As much as I look back with so many fond memories of my time speed-skating, I do not want my children to burn-out of the sports they love!
I hear so many people gripe about how 'hard core' parents are today about kids and sports. Although some argue that parents are pressuring their kids to participate/excel at sports at such an early age, I believe it is simpler than that. As parents, we are a generation that grew up playing competitive sports, (at a more competitive level than our parents) and we simply want our children to enjoy it as much as we did. I am sure there are plenty of overzealous sideline parents who are WAY too emotionally invested in their children's performance or the outcomes of their games....But for most level-headed parents, they simply want to give their children an opportunity to play and have good old fashioned competitive fun!
Sadly, in order to just PLAY (not necessarily excel), the harsh reality is that our kids likely have to match the practicing level of their peers. A child understandably would not find it enjoyable to play if they cannot keep up with their teammates. For example, a friend who recently returned from a three year stint in Zurich, Switzerland with her family lamented that baseball was simply out of the question for her (now) 2nd grader. They had no opportunities to play baseball in Switzerland, and he was too late (skill-wise) to start here in the U.S. This never would have happened when we were children. From what I recall, it was common for kids to try a new sport in middle school. Perhaps it is merely an evolutionary phenomenon of sports per se; each generation plays at a higher intensity AND at a younger age, and therefore by default, must specialize earlier than their previous generation...so what do we do and how do we keep a level-head and realistic perspective about all of this?
The best I could come up with is as follows (but I welcome any and all guidance) ; ) I have concluded we are going to make ourselves crazy by constantly comparing the current sports environment to the one in which we grew up. We need to figure out a way to adjust our expectations and still maintain some level of balance/sanity. We can strive for a 'reasonable' balance of participation (in sports among other things such as dance, music, theatre, art, etc), introducing our children to a 'reasonable' array of different activities/sports at a young age. As they get older, we can focus a 'reasonable' amount of time/effort on the activities/sport(s) which interest them most.
Will this definition of 'reasonable' be the same to every family? I suspect not. It depends on what they hope to gain from their invested time and effort....An attempt to stay healthy through exercise? Lessons learned from teamwork or individual sports? A spot on the team at the JV, varsity, collegiate, Olympic level? Perhaps it involves a risk/reward analysis. Sure, the risk of injury and burnout may be higher in today's climate of kids' sports...but I still believe there is much to be gained. Will they have the luxury to play several different sports throughout their adolescence? Perhaps not....is this 'reasonable'? Perhaps not according to our (personal) standards....and I am sure all of the parents of older children than mine (2, 4, and 5 yrs old), are laughing at my repeated use of the word 'reasonable' in the same paragraph to discuss kids' sports today....but if the whole point is for them to participate, learn, grow, enjoy, and be active, perhaps it is simply our frame of mind we must adjust and try to keep it all in perspective. Clearly, it will never be as we reminisce, but I am certain there is still much to be gained by showing up to play ; )