I needed a photo, so the above is my little posse, doing their best to appear emotionally traumatized by youth sports, and failing miserably, which I love about them. They’ve learned to not take it all too seriously, although preserving that attitude requires a lot of vigilance on our part. I realize that this is not the blog title that you might expect from an owner of a sports medicine/orthopedic physical therapy practice who also is a Masters swimmer and off road triathlete. I played soccer and lacrosse in middle and high school. My husband is an amazing runner, mountain biker and skier, and worked as a tennis pro during summers in college. Among our beloved offspring we have 3 mountain bikers, hikers, tennis players and skiers; 2 soccer players; 2 lacrosse players; 2 swimmers, including one state runner up for 100 fly last year; and 2 nordic skiers. They are solid little athletes, which is normal here, frankly because there aren’t a whole lot of other options in northern Vermont other than athletics. I am not providing our athletic resume to demonstrate how awesome we are, but rather to show that we are not a gang of couch potatoes. We love the outdoors, and I love it that we can enjoy these activities as a family; all, I should say, except for those that fall under the category of “organized youth sports.”
There has been more attention recently devoted to the unhealthy climate of youth sports, more research studies on the effects of the youth sports culture on young athletes, and more articles floating around on social media lashing out against the insanity of the youth sports culture in the U.S. While pulling my thoughts together for this blog, I talked to several clients who also are parents of children involved in sports, and it turns out that they all feel the way I do. The youth sports culture seems to turn adults that we normally like into competitive, obsessive, pushy and rude assholes who live out their failed athletic endeavors vicariously through their kids and criticize the officials, coaches, and other players behind each other’s backs on the sidelines. At times it seems that everyone has lost their minds! Or that they’ve been abducted by aliens and had their brains somehow altered! What I am seeing in my clinic that is not seen on the sidelines, however, is that these people create a physically and emotionally unhealthy and at times unsafe environment for their kids. And when these people become part of the governing board of the sports club, or even worse, the head of the sports club, they create an unsafe environment for your kids and my kids as well.
Go ahead and get offended if you’re feeling attacked by this. “Unfriend” me, consult any other PT other than me next time you get injured. It’s OK, I would expect nothing less. Or, you can get over yourself, think about it and do something to improve your intolerable behavior. Wishful thinking on my part, because I know you think that your vigilant advocacy for your child’s future sports career absolves you of any bad behavior.
Yeah, I’m talking to you. I’ve seen you people in Connecticut, in the Washington DC area, in southern Virginia and, much less frequently, in Vermont. You people of the Saturday and Sunday lawn chair culture, watching your kids play multiple games in blazing heat, rain, snow and sleet while you yell incorrect coaching instructions to your kids from your lawn chair with the little umbrella over it, sipping a cold or hot cocktail from your Thermos. You people who couldn’t run a lap of the field to save your life, or complete a pass with a lacrosse stick if the fate of world peace depended on it, but you somehow know all about every game and what your child and everyone else’s child out there should or should not have been doing. May God have mercy on your soul if I ever hear you yell coaching instructions to MY kid because if you do, I will take you down. Somebody tried. Once. (And if someone makes the same error with your child, a quiet, serious, “Please do not coach my child. He/she is coached only by the coach and no one else” will put a stop to it forever.)
I don’t care what your sports background is. You are the parents who yell and scream and ring cowbells on goal number 14, when your first grader’s soccer team is crushing the other team 14-0. You are the parents in the swim team stands who get up and do the team dance, but who would choose death over putting on a swimsuit (which is a blessing for us all). You are the people who post live footage of your kids’ sports action on Facebook for the world to see. Then you tell your crying kid what he or she did wrong in the last race and order him/her back onto the field or ski slopes or hockey rink or pool deck, or into the car to drive to the next sports event. The least you can do to begin to atone for your sins is to get your fat ass out of the lawn chair and assistant coach, officiate, time, bring a team snack, or do something useful to help. Getting involved at a grass roots level frequently (although not always) provides some realistic perspective, and God knows all those poor volunteers trying to create a positive experience for the kids while dealing with the likes of you could use a hand. And while you’re at it, learn the appropriate way to show team spirit without crushing children’s spirits.
You people are negative energy. You come to see me for your little problems and lie on my table bragging about how your child is the best on the team, and the nerve of the coach to give some less talented child more playing time! Worse, you bring your child with you and you involve your kid in this conversation, thereby teaching him/her to copy your demented thinking patterns and delusions of grandeur. I end these conversations with, “Well, it really is all about learning the sport at this age, not winning, and the coaches do their best to be fair. Everyone deserves a chance to play,” and change the subject.
And the biggest target of my most fiery wrath: When you come into my clinic crying that your back hurts, but you haven’t done even one of the three pathetic rehab exercises that I gave you which would fix the problem. This after bringing in your poor elementary or middle schooler who can’t walk due to heel pain or knee pain from an overuse sports injury, because the child plays on 2 or 3 teams, each of which played 2 or 3 games this weekend. There you are, hovering and trying to speak for your child and demand to know if he or she can play tomorrow (No!), and then argue with me: “Can’t you just tape him/her up? What if s/he just plays for a little while?” Frequently the child has been brainwashed by the parent into thinking that playing tomorrow is really, really important; but just as frequently, you two argue in front of me because the poor kid at least has retained some iota of common sense and doesn’t want to play through pain. What I will tell you is this: “You brought your child to me for care, so now it’s my job to take care of your child. I’m sorry because I can see it’s very important to you, but if s/he can’t walk, s/he can’t play. That’s all. If s/he plays it’s against medical advice.”
And I couldn’t care less about your views regarding psychological factors, kids needing to toughen up or that you played through pain in high school and college (which, based on your reluctance to comply with my wimpy back exercises, I frankly do not believe). Take it to your shrink. My evaluation and assessment are based on physical findings only. In my clinic I am not your friend or part of your plan and you may not count on me to take your side, unless your side is based only upon what is best for your child.
ADVANCE PT magazine reports that “physical therapists are seeing an influx of youth athletes in their practices for a simple reason: too much activity, too soon, for too long.” And here in my little practice, the incidence in overuse injuries is doubling every sports season. Approximately one year ago I think I had 5 in my clinic. Last fall I had about 10, and this spring I had around 20 kids from elementary through high school age see me throughout the season for overuse type injuries, mostly heel, ankle or knee pain. The oldest was 15, the youngest was 8.
What is going on here? I believe that growth is a contributing factor. During periods of rapid growth, kids frequently exhibit some decreased trunk stability and changing motor patterns which could make them slightly more at risk for injury, in combination with other factors.
The unbelievably junky quality of almost all cleats is not to be believed, and also in my opinion is a contributing factor. Parents sashay into my clinic sporting the latest and greatest from the Sundance, Hoka or Patagonia catalog in outdoor footwear but meanwhile their kids are running several hours a week and all weekend in cheap, non-breathable vinyl uppers with a hard plastic sole and zero drop, zero cushioning and zero supportive insoles because they “didn’t want to spend too much because they’re growing.” And I can’t fault them too much because I frankly don’t see much of a difference in quality throughout the price range. If you think you purchased better quality Nike cleats because you paid more, in reality what you paid for was a swoosh on the sides and maybe a flashy color. I recommend that all parents at least purchase a good quality insole for their kids’ cleats, such as the Spenco Kids’ insoles (Note: I am not being paid to promote any products–I recommend these insoles because I use Spenco products and I just think they’re really, really good.).
These, of course, are contributing factors. The real problem is that many kids do not get a break. I remember the good old days of a few years ago when we used to have a couple of weeks, sometimes even a month between sports. The seasons start earlier now and run longer, and it seems to get worse every year. The end of one season immediately rolls into the start of the next. Pro football players have way more downtime than our kids get. And just when you think it’s mercifully over and have made some plans for some relaxing family time, along comes an email announcing a surprise tournament for next weekend!
One team never seems to be enough anymore. It is more than enough in our family. I have a one-team-per-person-per-season rule in our household during the school year, and allow for a little more activity during the summer. But we don’t run ourselves ragged in the summer, and I try to view summer sports at this stage as more of a season pass rather than 100 percent commitment. We need a break and we’ve got summer stuff to do. The kids brought to me with overuse injuries all, without exception, either are playing multiple sports, like soccer and lacrosse, or cross country and soccer, or cross country and field hockey—or they are playing on multiple teams for the same sport, such as the community soccer team and a club soccer team, or a club soccer team and then some crazy Futbol thing 3 or 4 towns away that schedules practices or games at 8 or 9 pm Sunday nights, which is just beyond me. I can’t understand for the life of me why anyone wants to get involved in that.
Nothing is sacred anymore. Sports are expected to trump all. We are expected to give up holidays—Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day—for games, tournaments, meets and races. We had a celebration for my son’s First Communion, with family in town, and my kids were concerned about missing the games that day and appearing uncommitted, because other kids were going straight from church to the games. My girls also take piano lessons and participate in dance. Our beloved saint of a piano teacher has difficulty every year scheduling a ONE HOUR piano recital, always a beautiful, sweet, and memorable event, around the sports—the one hour of the year when she asks her students to participate in her event. Invariably, kids do not show up because of sports, which monopolize several hours per week and all weekend, every weekend. Parents, particularly dads, I’ve noticed, also love to complain about the annual dance recital, which granted is a lot of work and takes up one weekend at the end of the year. It is always a spectacular, professional event and while it wears us all out, it really showcases the students’ and teachers’ yearlong hard work. But dance lacks the machismo factor that some parents vicariously gain from their kids’ sports participation, and therefore the dance students who play team sports often either are given grief for missing a game, or else it’s a mad, sweaty, stressful dash from the field to the dance auditorium.
Meanwhile, the research is showing that kids need a break. Studies by the National Alliance for Youth Sports show that 70 percent of kids drop out of sports by age 13, and one of the biggest reasons for the dropout rate is overuse injuries. The second very big, and very sad, reason is that their parents drive them bananas. Kids can’t stand the pressure from parents on the sidelines who are athletes in their own minds, nor do they enjoy the post game chalk talk in the car on the way home.
Another interesting piece of research comes from the June 2014 issue of JOSPT, “Coming To Terms With Early Sports Specialization And Athletic Injuries,” which pertains to committing to one sport year round at too early an age. The article notes that diversification of activity and time for free play is far superior for physical, emotional cognitive and behavioral development for children than commitment to one sport early on in life. It also notes that the value of developing specific sports skills during childhood and adolescence is outweighed by the risk of early injury. And this goes along with what I have seen in the clinic—a much higher injury rate in the population of kids that specialize in one sport than in those that mix it up. The article highlights that for better motor skills, brain development, social development and injury prevention, the current recommendation is that kids should not specialize in a sport before late adolescence, defined in the article as 15 to 20 years old.
My favorite quote from the JOSPT article: “Selection of a singular path for sports achievement too early is truly a pity, not just because other important life experiences may be bypassed, but also because the true positive values associated with sports participation become largely ignored.” I frequently wonder how life has come to this. I was a charter member of the very first New Haven, CT girls’ community soccer team, which started when I was 12 and in 7th grade. We had 2 practices per week that were an hour or so long, and one game per week on Saturdays. It was less demanding than my 2nd grade son’s spring soccer schedule. It was perfect and it was fun. I went to a prep school for high school that had very strong academics as well as sports. We practiced four days per week after school for an hour for soccer and lacrosse, and had two games per week. I recall managing sports and academics without an issue. Managing both and getting enough rest, however, is a challenging balancing feat of organization for my oldest child during the middle school field hockey season and the winter swim season.
I suspect a lot of the sports craze has evolved from well-intentioned people who really love their kids. Sports are fun! So let’s have more sports! And we want the best for our kids, so they should play sports as much as possible and not waste time hanging around playing. And if they work hard, maybe they can get a scholarship! Please. We all adore our kids, of course, and they’re awesome, but let’s keep it real. It’s better for our kids and for our relationship with our kids to be realistic, and for us to be positive and encourage children no matter what their abilities are.
The research shows that the chance of your child getting a sports scholarship is quite slim–0.7 percent of high school athletes, to be exact, as reported by this article in The Washington Post in 2011, and that the average sports scholarship amounts to $11,000 or less. However, when we factor in the earlier research that 70 percent of kids drop out of sports by age 13, my calculations come to a whopping 0.21 percent chance that your elementary or middle schooler will win a college scholarship. The good news, according to my Internet research, is that those odds are a lot better than the chance of being declared officially demonically possessed (0.014 percent), but not quite as strong odds as the chance as experiencing a zombie apocalypse (4 percent) or a solar megastorm (12 percent). So sorry to be the bearer of bad news that if you have kids, you most likely are paying for college. It’s not fair to think you have an indentured servant whom you can order onto the field or court or ski slope or pool deck to earn their college tuition, and looking at some of my little clients, I believe that approach falls into the realm of child abuse. If you really want your kids to attend college via scholarship, you’ll have better luck if they ditch the sports and focus on their grades, as academic scholarships are more readily available.
There are a ton of positive reasons to play youth sports. First and foremost comes the tremendous health benefits from physical activity. The flip side of the youth sports craze is that our nation is in an epidemic of obesity, which you need not go farther than your local “Friendly’s” to observe (as my son and I did last week). It is quite disheartening and sad, and I wonder what is going to become of all these people. Another great reason to participate in sports is that playing on a team is a great experience for life. You learn about commitment and hard work; you also learn how to work with people who may not necessarily be your favorite people, and how to cope in a situation that may be less than perfect, such as when you’re tired or when your team is losing.
As a parent of a middle schooler, I also do think that it is good for kids, particularly middle schoolers and high schoolers, to have activities they enjoy to keep them stimulated and out of trouble. Some of the most organized, together, psychologically healthy and by all appearances, happy kids I know tend to be quite busy. Their parents, I have observed, allow their kids to make decisions about the activities they choose, are positive and encouraging, and do not breathe down the kids’ necks about their sports stats. The challenge is knowing the difference between “busy and happy” and “overtrained and overscheduled.” There is a fine line but a big difference, and in my experience it is a state that is constantly in flux. At some moments in life, we are completely overscheduled, and other times we could use a little more activity. You just can’t be afraid to scale back when you feel that you need to be less crazed.
I am happy to see that many people are slowly coming to their senses. I heard about a “Just Say No” campaign from friends in the Washington DC suburbs a year or so ago, when parents refused to allow their middle schoolers to participate in indoor soccer games scheduled at 9 pm on a school night. Reviewing the literature on youth sports, I also am seeing a movement to “put the play back in ‘play ball’” that is gradually gaining momentum. My own advice is to take back your life and your children’s lives and don’t be afraid to refuse to follow the crowd. Many kids, i.e. mine, occasionally can get lazy and sometimes need some encouragement (or ordering out of the car) to attend a practice for a team on which they asked to play. Playing on a team requires commitment, and bailing because you didn’t feel like going is not fair to the other team members or the coach. My point is not to put sports last on the list of things to do in your life, but to let your child rest and recover from an injury, illness, or exhaustion.
There are other circumstances as well, I think, where mental and emotional health prevail over a practice. At Maison Doehla, school comes first. I’ll never be the fun mom who takes the kids out of school for an epic powdah day, and my kid will never be the one who didn’t get his or her homework done because he or she had a soccer game or a swim practice last night. If we have a special event or feel like celebrating a holiday without sports, we inform the coach ahead of time. Most coaches in my experience are nice, reasonable people who probably would rather celebrate Thanksgiving with their families too; but for the few who consider only your own death an adequate reason for missing a sports event, I find the best approach is to announce, not ask permission—“Sorry, Dakota won’t be at the soccer game on the 24th, we have a family event that day! So we’re all set for practice next week, see you then!” And breezily wave and dash off.
Let’s keep in mind that the primary reasons for enrolling our kids in a sport are: 1) for a fun, positive experience; 2) for health and physical activity; and 3) to learn a sport that they might enjoy at different points in their lifetime. Even if their soccer participation doesn’t go beyond next season, maybe they will play a pickup game at a party, play on an intramural team in college, or kick the ball around with their kids someday. The reasons should not be to win or to get a scholarship. The best coaching advice I’ve ever heard came this spring season from the 7th and 8th grade boys’ soccer coach, and I overheard him as I walked by their practice en route to picking up my son: “Don’t get upset if you take a shot on goal and miss. It’s no big deal if you don’t score a goal. If you miss, ask yourself, where was my hip facing, where was I looking? The only time you should ever be upset that you didn’t score is if you’re being paid 2 or 3 million dollars a year to score.”
As a sports medicine PT, I freely admit that I am inundated with research; frequently, the kids feel differently from what the research tells me they feel, and it is important to really talk to them about the issues. I spent all of the weekends in May sniveling and crying on the sidelines in the cold rain, snow, and in one case hail—and asking my kids things like, “Wouldn’t you rather just go mountain biking after school with me instead of doing this?” No! Was the resounding answer. They liked their teams and their games, and were committed to playing through the horrible weather. True Vermont kids. And my oldest, who is swimming, playing on two tennis teams, doing an overnight field hockey camp this summer, mountain biking on the side and training for a race, also wanted to sign up for what on paper sounded like a demanding one-week lacrosse camp. Why, why, why? I asked her. What’s the point? You think right now that you’ll want to play tennis in high school, next season may be your last lacrosse season, and if you try out for the school play next spring, you might not even have time for spring lacrosse. So why even bother? “Because it sounds like fun!” she replied.
Well! That right there is the entire point of the blog. Step off, tiger mom.
–Kathleen Doehla, M.S. P.T.