Sports Education

Sports Education

Dangers of premature focus

f your child came up to you and said,
"I’m only going to eat carrots for the rest of my life," would you let her do so? Of course not. Because it’s important for children to have a balanced diet. So, even though carrots are nutritious and kids should eat plenty of them, it wouldn’t be good if carrots were the only food your child ate.

The same argument applies to sports. There is an alarming trend in youth sports with young athletes specialising in one game/sport from an early age. Fuelling this trend are rising college fees, exorbitant salaries paid to professional athletes, multiplying number of single-sport coaches, and the growing number of clubs competing with colleges/universities for the best athletes. Not to mention ambitious parents whose paranoia about their children’s success has even spawned a new psychiatric condition: the ‘achievement by proxy’ syndrome.

I know the power of this condition when you discern athletic talent in your children. You want to nurture it to the optimum. And it’s hard not to experience this when you hear about other parents hiring pitching coaches and sending their kids to elite baseball camps and stuff like that. Therefore when your child’s coach comes to you and says, "You know, if your kid wants to have a shot at a scholarship or something bigger, he/she needs to just stick to baseball," it’s natural to turn her into a one-sport athlete. You can’t help conjuring dreams of that big scholarship, and an even bigger professional sports career. It’s very easy to be taken in by such superficially attractive considerations and encourage your child to begin focusing on a particular sport or track/ field event at an early age.

But think twice before you make that decision. Better yet, think three times. For every compelling reason why you should encourage your child to specialise in one sport, there are equally compelling reasons why you shouldn’t.

One of the great dangers is the possibility of your child sustaining an overuse injury. As a growing number of children train and compete year-round and specialise in a single sport at ever younger ages, doctors are reporting a spate of overuse injuries. Because children (especially boys) are still developing musculoskeletally until the age of 17-18, their bodies just aren’t ready for the stress of focused sports participation. Playing the same sport, say basketball, carries a high risk of injury in the arms or ankles.

But by playing multiple sports, your child can reduce the risk of overuse of particular body parts. Different sports mandate variable usage of the body, which builds all-round development of a child’s physiology and overall fitness — a better option to single sport fitness. That’s why parents and coaches should encourage athletes to either take periodic breaks or participate in more than one sport, so that different parts of the body are active at different times.

Another reason for avoiding early specialisation in one sport is to prevent psychological burnout. In a classic case, in 1997, Ryan Jaroncyck, who had been a first-round draft pick for the Mets two years earlier, walked away from baseball. He confessed he had never really liked the game, and just didn’t want to play any more. So why had he invested so many years in the sport? To make his parents happy!

Each sport has its own lessons in terms of teamwork, leadership, goal-setting etc. The team spirit and dynamics of soccer are very different from those of baseball. Each sport has its own dynamics. Baseball is a team sport that consists of cumulative individual contributions, while soccer is a game that requires ongoing team work for the team to succeed. I don’t know if Ryan Jaroncyck was a one-sport athlete, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was. In the end, he became a no-sport athlete — because what good is a six-figure salary if you hate what you do?

Finally, one of the most important reasons to encourage your child to try her hand at a variety of sports is to help her learn the importance of balance in life. As a psychologist, I have worked with people in and out of sports whose lives were seriously out of whack because they didn’t understand the need for balance.

Given the opportunity, I believe that most kids would choose to participate in a variety of sports. It is usually adults — coaches and parents — who steer kids in the direction of a single sport. This is in direct contradiction to what should be the cardinal rule of youth sports: that it should be child-driven rather than an adult-driven activity. Young ones need time to develop affinity and expertise in all games and athletic activities. Morever children display varying skills at different stages of their growth. Therefore they need time to choose the sport in which they want to specialise.

So parents beware of the achievement by proxy syndrome and imposing your aspirations on your progeny. Let your children enjoy baseball — and football, basketball, tennis, squash racquets and whatever other sport they want to try their hand at. Leave the steady diet of carrots for rabbits. Let your children be children.

(Dr. George Selleck is a California-based sports psychologist and advisor to Sportz Village, Bangalore)