Child Sports

Child Sports Nearly every child, at one point or another in his young and impressionable life, has particiapated in sports. Whether it is a pick-up basketball game at a playground after school, or organized Little League, complete with ninety-foot bases and replicated major league uniforms, sports play an intricate part of the development and maturation of a youngster. Beneath it’s presumed purity, however, lies an occasionally seedy underbelly. Win-at-all cost coaches and tyrannical, overbearing parents have turned this innocent recreational activity into a nightmarish hell for some juvenile participants, and have left many wondering if sports is a helpful or a harmful stage in a child’s life. Conventional wisdom tells us that the greatest rewards obtained by sport participation is how it enhances ones growth physically.

A valid point, yes, but that cannot be the only reason. If so, how can you explain coaches and parents who take their amateur atheletes out for greasy pizza or fattening ice cream the minute after the last pitch is thrown or the final goal is scored? In a recent survey conducted by Sean Slade in the March 1999 addition of The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 250 families who had children in grades three through five were asked a simple question: “Why do you want your child playing sports as they grow up?” Astoundingly, the responses were three-to-one in favor of the mental, rather than the physical benefits that sports has to offer(Slade 1999). Parents stated that aside from buidling muscles and strength, sports gives children a chance to learn about sportsmanship, teamwork, persistence, fair play, self-esteem, and above all, enjoyment. Sports also offers a wide variety of mental and social gifts. Children learn from early age that unless everyone participates and everyone succeeds, the ultimate goal cannot be reached.

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And for those who were a bit down on themselves because their grades are not as a high as a friend or a sibling, their self-esteem can be boosted by a good perfornance on the field. Even kids crippled by severe shyness can emerge from their shell by spending hours in the dugout or on the sidelines with their peers. But above all, participating in sports can lead to hours and hours of unbridled enjoyment. After spending seven hours in a stuffy classroom, their is no better way of blowing off steam than by hitting a baseball, sinking a layup, or running a touchdown into the endzone. Children get a chance to emulate heroes like Jordan, McGwire, and Moss every time they step onto their respective of field of play. Maureen Weiss, PhD, of the University of Oregon, also agrees that sports do more than enhance biceps and up hand-eye coordination.

Said Weiss, “Physical activity and sports have tremendous potential to enhace children’s self-esteem and motivation.” Weiss’s research consisitently proves that self-esteem and perceptions of physical ability can predict achievement behavior, motivations and positive effects(APA 1996). Ronald M. Jeziorski, an educational psychologist who consults curricular programs in Santa Clara, California, also sees the posivite effect sports has on a children’s psychological well-being. Jeziorski surveyed eighteen professionals in social work, law enforcement, and education on the effect of sports. “Across the board”, said Jeziorksi, “they all said that participants in sports earn better grades, behave better in the classroom, have fewer behavior problems outside the classroom, drop out significantly less, and attend school on a regular basis with fewer unexcused absences” (Theeboom, de Knop, Weiss 1995). Mental gifts aside, let us not forget that the physical aspect of sports is extremely important, especially now more than ever.

In the age of Super Nintendo and Playstation, rarely do children long for enjoyment beyond the confines their bedroom. In fact, the proportion of overweight teens has grown from 15 to 21 percent in the last decade alone, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is worse is that even in schools, kids are not receiving the proper physical attention that they require. In a 1994 study of twenty-nine elementary schools and thirteen middle schools in Harris County, Texas, only 8.5 percent of all elementary students are taking part in vigourous activites during physical education classes. Middle school students are not doing much better: a paltry 16.1 percent take part, much lower than the standards developed by the National Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, which set the bar at 50% back in 1991(APA 1996). In cases like these, the only way children get any real physical actvity in via organized or intramural sports.

Children who play physically taxing sports like basketball and hockey must be in good shape. Aside from layups and penalty shots, the atheletes also take part in strectching drills, as well as a various amount of running actvities. Those who play football need to have great physical strength. Children who play sports like these become involved in very disciplined, very regimented fitness activities that in most cases, stays with them forever. While baseball, basketball, and football are the most popular sports for youths to get involved in, other sports are growing in great lenghts, as well.

Thanks in part to the unbelivable play of Tiger Woods, many have discovered the wonders of golf, while the success of the Women’s World Cup soccer team has soccer growing at a meteoric rate. But would you believe that children on the blacktop streets of Harlem are playing..squash? Yes, you read that right- squash. George Polsky, a 31 year-old New York native who used to teach middle and high school, started a program called StreetSquash, which he adapted from a similar program currently being utilized in Boston. Like other sports, squash does not just provide nourishment for the players physical health, but their mental health, as well. Polsky makes every StreetSquash practice mandatory, as well as all StreetSquash events, which occasionally inlcudes community service.

The program also makes the kids sign a contract, and requires all parents to spend at least thirty minutes a night helping their children with their homework. This is just another example of the benefits of sport(Fountain 2000). Loyalty is another key element one picks up while engaging in sports. A pitcher cannot survive without the support of his catcher. A running back is nothing if his offensive line is not steamrolling over the defense, giving him room to run.

And a goalie would be worn out if the defense was not constantly keeping the ball or puck out of the defensive zone. Children see how much they need to depend on each other in order to succeed, and this is something that no doubt carries on into their future, on and off the field(Weiss, Smith, Theeboom 1996). Psychology is also a very instrumental part of sport. Every single team, from the lavish New York Yankees to the cash strapped Pittsburgh Pirates, have sport psychologists on board to occasionally coach players through the rigors of a long and frequently dissappointing season(Page and Tucker 1994). While I’m hard pressed to name any Little League teams who have such a person, the psychology one learns in sports can be a helpful tool when approaching real life problems.

Robert N. Singer, PhD, is the former president of APA’s Division 47 (Exercse and Sport) and chair of the department of exercise and sport sciences at the University of Florida in Gainesville, notes the coorelation, citing a job interview as an example of fleshing out this technique. “Just as an athelete might mentally prepare for a sports event, the patient could rehearse in advance what he’s going to say and how he’s going to say it, as well as anticipate questions that might come up and how’s he’s going toanswer them.” Singer also notes that this kind of visualization reduces stress, builds confidence and ultimately leads to better performance (APA 1996). Just think how enhanced this visualization can be if learned at an early age. Children who play sports not only up their self-esteem, but they become familiar with quasi-high pressure situations, which is something that we all have to deal with, at one point or another.

Sports has a plethora of gifts to offer all of its particpants, but as mentioned before, not all lessons nor experiences that one garners while playing sports is all very good. Participation is at an all time high, with some estimates reaching heights as robust as forty million children(Dowell, Drummond, Grace, Harrington, Monroe, and Shannon 1999). But the problem is not that players are multiplying like Gremlins in a swimming pool. It’s how the sports are being played. The days of simple organized sports- two games a week, practice one day a week, and the field being two miles away from the farthest family- are gone. In its place, travel and tournament teams, who rarely play in the same city more than once, have things harried for the typical working class family, not to mention exspensive.

Club dues, clinics, camps, travel, and hotel can cost as much as $3,000. I remember when my parents, for a mere forty bucks, would sign me up to play baseball. For the forty dollars, I would get a Major League-looking uniform, a fifteen game schedule, nice fields to play on, and more times than not, a nice trophy when the season was over. But things are not simple anymore. Youth sports have not only risen in terms of participation, but in expectation, as well. According to Time magazine, some coaches begin recruiting talented youngsters as young as eight. While this may sound good on the surface, these kids, in a way, lose some of their childhood.

They spend every minute of free time, whether it be after school, summer vacations, or weekends, at clinics, practices, and cutthroat tournaments. For many of these kids, sports no longer becomes a wholesome hobby. It becomes a full time job, complete with stress, guilt, and a truckload of pressure. Even long-standing family holidays, such as Christmans and Thanksgiving, dissapate into long road trips and treks to tournaments. Some parents are happy that sports fills up their children’s idle time.

If they’re on the field doing laps or shagging flies, they are not on the streets, doing drugs and chugging alcohol. But overbearing coaches and occasionally deranged parents occasionally mar the game for the most important people- the children. The military police had to be called in to stop a parents brawl at a “tinymite” football game in Repton, Ala., last October. That same year, an Okalahoma man was sentenced to twelve days in jail for attacking a fifteen year-old umpire. I’m sorry, but who exactly are the children here? Coaches are also a cause of some of the negativity found in youth sports.

On the surface, coaches appear to be the salt of the earth. Men and women who work forty hours a week come home and coach a Little League baseball, football, hockey team, etc. And since they are all voulnteers, they get no money for their service. But a problem can arise. While most of these folks may know their respective sports very well, they do not know the proper way to get through to a young and fragile little child.

“It’s one of the largest volunteer forces in our country,” s …