I attended several pediatric conferences in the last few weeks, and brought you a post about the new public health campaign in my state to close a “language gap” affecting children in the public school environment (you can see the interesting discussion in that post when some folks asked my opinion about the intersection of this campaign and Waldorf parenting, where we often do not speak as much to the young child and tend to use our speech in verse, rhyme, and song..Great questions and observations by parents! ). One of the other interesting sessions I attended was about the history of children’s sports in the United States, and current recommendations in a country where the children are being pushed into elite travel teams and many hours of practice a week..and ending up with many injuries, surgeries and rehabilitation programs as a result. The pediatric sports medicine doctors at this conference had quite a bit to say.
First of all (much to my personal dismay), they truly felt that the country was not going to “go back” and leave competitive sports for the upper middle school and high school levels the way it used to be. They cited the 60 million dollar contract ESPN made with Little League in order to televise the Little League World Championship games, and the websites that list the top 7 and 8 year olds in basketball in the nation. Yes, it seems crazy to those of us who are older and remember how things used to be. Just crazy.
They also pointed out that history is not really on the side of going back to not having competitive teams for children younger than high school either. Essentially, at one point in time, the United States did “go back” and limited interscholastic participation in sports to those 10th grade and above (around 1939, after there was a flourishing of sports under Theodore Roosevelt and others prior to this time). There were many playgrounds about during this time, and without coaches and such involved, parents just took over in teaching their children and forming sports leagues themselves. Of course, in this day and age, this has further morphed into elite travel teams and the like.
The other reason cited for not being able to “go back” is that this is seen as the most scheduled generation of all time. Parents know where and what their children are doing practically every second of the day, so free play seems like a huge barrier to overcome. Even if children go outside to “free play”, generally a parent is standing there. Some children are afraid to play in their own neighborhoods. Safety and lack of greenspace and such are seen as barriers to free play. Finally, the last barrier is an electronic one, where children will stay inside and play on a screen or watch a screen rather than being outside.
The sports medicine doctors recognized that by age 14, 73 percent of the children involved in competitive sports QUIT! The differences between child and adult led games were discussed. When children organize games, it is much different than when adults do! When children organize games, the children organize it around ACTION. There is not a lot of sitting on the sidelines usually, even if a game is stopped in the middle and players are traded to make teams more “equal”. Children craft games hinging on challenging and exciting experiences, close scores because children don’t usually want a blowout (sometimes there are “mercy endings” if scores are really disparate), the rules are bent or changed or added to make things more fun or more even (remember “do-overs”?) . There are even things like “ghostmen”, or having the bigger children “handicapped” (throw with your left, kick with your left) to make the game and teams more even. So much different than when adults get involved! The pediatric doctor acknowledge this, and hope to do a few things so this spirit is not lost forever.
The wish of the sports medicine doctors and athletic trainers in the room seemed to be for a focus on safe skill acquisition, and to encourage fun, peer support, enthusiastic and safe coaching (and they pointed out that most coaches do not learn anything about child development at all!) and most of all, rotation of sports throughout the year without a “specialization” in one sport until the upper middle school grades. They also want to encourage free play.
There was a big push discussed for pediatric providers to provide realistic expectations for parents. There was a study in 2006 by Rohloff out of Wisconsin where 22 percent of the parents interviewed EXPECTED their child athletes to become pro players! That is a super high expectation considering that less than 7 percent of high school athletes even play in college. In American football, less than 1 percent of high school football players make the pros. Out of the four million babies born in the United States, 300 will earn a pro paycheck long enough to say they had a career in pro sports. In the meantime, is this tiny possibility enough to ruin a child’s body for life? When we are dissecting what to do after shoulder surgeries for fourteen year old pitchers, rehabilitation for gymnasts who have severe back pain and need hardware implanted, etc. and the best way to rehabilitate a child whose identity is their sport, is this what should be encouraged? Instead, nurses, pediatricians, sports physicians, physical therapists, athletic trainers, coachers are being asked to provide parents with realistic expectations, with the idea that early specialization is not helpful or necessary to sports success in the later years and that the focus should be on establishing health, not pro players.
There is a call and a push for better training for coaches in the area of child development, injury assessment and prevention of injury; to develop safety programs, products and rule modifications for safer play; to encourage free play as much as possible and to discourage early competitive specialization, and to help parents and those working with student athletes to understand readiness cues for sports that are related to development. It doesn’t seem as if any organization is taking this under their wing as a public health campaign at this point, however, and I am not certain the message is really getting out to the average American parent. I wish there was.