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To parents, youth sports an 'athletic arms race'

Posted: November 22, 2012 8:00 a.m.
Updated: November 22, 2012 8:00 a.m.

In this Oct. 26 photo, Billy Hirschfield, 16, flips a tire during a workout at NX Level, an elite training facility in Waukesha, Wis.

 

Shawn Worthy admits he's a competitive guy — and a competitive parent, sometimes.

Yet even he was floored when a couple of moms he met at a pro junior golf tournament told him that their teen daughters would be entered in 30 such events this past summer.

"Why are these young ladies out on the golf course playing competitively four or five days a week?" Worthy asked himself.

His own 16-year-old daughter, Soleil, holds down a job while participating in a few tournaments each summer. She and the other young women are good, Worthy says, maybe talented enough to play in college.

But 30 tournaments?

"If you're a future Olympian, I get it. But for these kids who will never reach that level, that's what I don't get," says Worthy, a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver with an interest in sports psychology.

"What does it say about our culture that we go to this extreme?" he asks. "And that we push our kids to this extreme?"

It's not just golf. Many parents, coaches and researchers see a steady upping of the ante in youth sports, with kids whose families can afford the time and cost involved playing more, practicing more and specializing in one sport at younger ages.

Parents are driven by a desire to help their children stand out and the fear that, if they don't, their kids will be left behind. To keep pace, they're often traveling hundreds if not thousands of miles a year for games and tournaments. Some parents send their children to personal trainers, or to the growing number of so-called elite training facilities that have opened in recent years.

Often, the goal is to simply land a spot on the local high school team, an accomplishment once taken for granted. Or, a young person may try to get on the roster in the growing private club team system — an even more exclusive route that some top teenage athletes are choosing, especially when high schools cut coaches and opportunities.

"It's an athletic arms race," says Scott VanderStoep, a psychology professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who studies youth sports.

And it starts early.

"It sort of spreads throughout the community and then it reduces down in age," VanderStoep says. "If it's OK for 14-year-olds, then it's OK for a 12-year-old, or a 10-year-old."

How can this obsession with playing sports exist in a country where the Centers for Disease Control say more than a third of young Americans are overweight or obese? The juxtaposition seems unlikely, but a longstanding survey from the National Sporting Goods Association found that youth participation in most team sports has steadily dropped in the last decade.

The number of 12- to 17-year-olds who played baseball in any kind of setting has, for instance, dropped 36 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to the survey. Basketball participation has dropped nearly 20 percent. Swimming and tackle football each dropped about 10 percent, volleyball participation 2 percent and soccer 1.4 percent.

Nonetheless, it would be oversimplifying to say the United States has become a nation of couch potatoes. Experts who track youth sports say many young people simply don't have the chance to play, or resources to do so.

Some schools in cash-strapped districts have cut back on sports and physical education. And even in some wealthier districts, high school populations have grown, leaving more kids to vie for fewer roster spots.

An annual survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations shows that, in the new millennium, the number of student athletes has grown because the overall youth population also has steadily increased. But if you divide the number of athletes who play a particular sport by the number of schools, comparing 2000 to 2010, roster sizes in some sports have actually shrunk — by an average of at least one athlete per school per sport in such games as basketball, soccer, baseball and volleyball.

These dwindling opportunities have only fed the hyper-competitive atmosphere, says VanderStoep, who admits that, as a dad of two daughters who play volleyball, even he feels beholden to the system.

For his daughters, that has meant weight-lifting camps and tournaments, and seemingly endless required practices and packed schedules. Games could be any night of the week — and that has made it more difficult for his youngest daughter to find the time to play other sports.

"You feel obligated to do it. You want to give your kids the opportunity," he says. "And if they don't show up, they lose opportunities to play."

Corinne Henson, a mom in suburban Chicago, knows about those hard choices. Her sons, 11-year-old Tyler and 14-year-old Dylan, play year-round baseball on different traveling teams and also manage to squeeze in basketball and football for their local park district.

The boys do it because they love it — live for it, really.

"I wouldn't give up sports for anything," Dylan says as he sits on the couch in his living room waiting for football practice to start.

"Me either," his younger brother quickly adds.

But there are sacrifices, especially for their parents. Time spent on sports has meant giving up their longtime campsite in Indiana where they'd kept a travel trailer. They simply have no time to go there.

"Our vacations are baseball trips," Henson says. She figures they spend several thousand dollars a year on travel, team fees and equipment. Often, one parent is taking Dylan to one game or practice, while the other parent carts Tyler to the other.

When they were younger, their boys regularly missed birthday parties and other events because of games. But the most difficult decision came earlier this year, when Dylan's best friend was struck and injured by a hit-and-run driver.

Their town, Oak Forest, Ill., had a fundraiser for the friend in July. But Dylan, a catcher who is captain of his traveling baseball team, had four tournament games that day. He decided he had to be at the tournament, and showed up at the fundraiser as it was wrapping up.

His friend understood. "I would have done the same thing," he told Dylan. The traveling team won the tournament, likely because Dylan stayed, his mom says.

"But it's so hard, as a parent."

Diane Hughes, a mom in New Jersey, also knows that many outsiders would look at her 10-year-old son's travel-team baseball schedule and shake their heads.

"It really sounds crazy, I know," Hughes says.

It often means he has multiple three-hour practices each week, a 45-minute drive from their home. Weekend tournaments usually consist of four or five games. And, Hughes figures, she spends $5,000 to $6,000 a year so he can participate — an amount that is pretty standard and often more, especially for those who seek out elite training.

There are many positives, Hughes says.

"In the long run, I want him to have his time structured, so I love the fact that he loves it so much. It's exercise. It's building a skill. It's fun — and it's fun to watch them," Hughes says.

Her biggest concern? That, by the time he gets to high school, he'll be tired of baseball.

Back in Illinois, Henson works to keep her boys' sports expectations in check.

"They want the pro athlete dream more than I do, or my husband does," she says. "It would be great if they got a scholarship for sports. But it would be better if they got a scholarship for academics. That's what will get them further."

In the Henson house, the rule is simple: "Homework first," says mom, who's a teacher.

Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner Little Scholars, an international youth football and cheerleading program, says that's a perspective he hears less and less.

"The first several years I was here, our biggest concern was training coaches — the overzealous Vince Lombardi coach," says Butler, who's been in his position for more than 20 years. "That started to change in the late 1990s, when we started to be concerned with the overzealous parent."

In more recent years, he's watched as parents have clamored to find ways to improve their children's athletic prowess. He says his advice to them — "don't hire a speed coach, hire a tutor" — is often met with disgust.

"They respond like I've lost a few marbles along the way," he says. "It's not what they want to hear."

Bill Jaworski, a dad who's also a youth baseball coach in New Jersey, says he is often "shocked and chagrined" at how easily some parents lose perspective about their kids' sports.

"These are people you see at the pub, or on the train, or out on the street. They're just normal folks — and then you get them to the game and they turn into these rabid freakazoids," says Jaworski, who's also a philosophy professor at Fordham University.

Certainly, the pushy sports parent isn't a new phenomenon, he and others note. But they can't help but notice the increased intensity and heightened competitiveness, not just in sports but in life in general.

It's just different than when he was a kid, Jaworksi says. He played baseball at the local park with friends or in the backyard. Today, he's seeing kids as young as age 7 learning the skills at elite training facilities, some that focus on specific sports and others on overall fitness.

Billy Hirschfield, now 16, was 11 when his dad first took him to an establishment called NX+Level, in Waukesha, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee.

The atmosphere at NX+Level, can be intense.

Pro athletes train there. Signs on the gym walls say things like, "You can only be a winner if you are willing to walk over the edge."

But it was exactly the kind of atmosphere Billy craved back then, says his dad Ronnie Hirschfield. "He was a chunky kid, and he didn't like that," dad says.

Today, his son is a high school junior and varsity football player being recruited by major college football teams.

Now a 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive tackle and end, he's so big and muscular — and so dedicated to his training — that his friends call him "the freak."

"I never in a million years thought it would be like that," says his dad, who figures he spends $8,000 to $10,000 a year on sports, including training and travel to tournaments.

It's all been worth it, he says.

"Why wouldn't you spend that on your son to make him a better person?" his dad asks. "And if he ends up walking away with a scholarship, it was the best investment I could have ever made."

Brad Arnett, the owner of NX+Level, knows there are those who question whether kids should train in his facility. But he makes it clear that they have to want to be there, as Billy did.

"We want your kids to want to do this," Arnett says. "We don't bring them in and work them until they puke. There is a means to an end."

He says training in a club like his helps kids develop more strength and agility — and also avoid injury because they're in better shape.

Others think the training should be done in a different type of setting — and with less emphasis on competitiveness.

"I think things are going down a dangerous path," says David Finch, a certified strength and conditioning specialist who recently left his job as a school psychologist in Chicago to open his gym in Middleton, Wis., outside Madison.

If parents bring younger kids in, he often suggests learning a few overall fitness techniques and working on them at home.

"If they're in your facility because 'Hey, you have to secure a roster spot,' then that's not so good," Finch says.

This should be fun, he adds.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a parent who'd disagree with that.

But with competition all around, parents don't just worry about a child's athletic career or getting into a good college. Many worry about getting them into a decent elementary school.

Sports can be seen as a ticket to something bigger, a way to set a kid apart from the pack.

"You try and build the perfect kid," says Adam Naylor, a clinical assistant professor of sports psychology at Boston University who works with parents and athletes, some as young as age 12.

"It leads to overtraining, overuse and an over-committed kid, which has fallout. But it's really tough to see that in the moment."

He recalls one mom who told him: "In this town, if you don't play club soccer, you're told your kid won't make it in life. But we only have money to play town soccer."

She felt guilty that she couldn't afford the more expensive private league, like she was failing her kid. She felt pressured, as many parents do.

Other times, it's the parents doing the pushing — as Worthy sees it, their quest to boost their own self esteem with their children's accomplishments. He calls it "vicarious glory."

He recalls how those moms on the golf course followed their daughters on every golf round and introduced themselves not by their own names but as "so and so's mom."

Still, even he concedes that his competitive parent has shone through occasionally.

He remembers telling a buddy a few years back that his daughter was getting into golf after giving up competitive gymnastics because of injury.

"If she's going to play," the friend advised, "buy her the best gear possible because everybody out there is going to have it."

Did Worthy do it?

"Yep," he says. "Because if you don't, then it's not even fair."

As psychologist Wendy Grolnick sees it, that's just parents doing what they're wired to do — responding to a very primal instinct to protect their children and ensure their survival.

"It's not out of a sense of living through your child or narcissism. Parents love their kids and they don't want them to miss out," says Grolnick, a professor at Clark University who wrote the book "Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Children: Dealing with Competition While Raising a Successful Child."

The key is to keep it in check.

"There's just so much competition in the air," she says. "Very nice people are feeling this way."

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