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Is America's Obsession with Youth Sports Hurting Kids?

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In his new book Until it Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How it Harms Our Kids, author Mark Hyman shows how parents have turned youth sports into a high-pressure, big-money enterprise at the expense of their children.

Hyman, a Baltimore writer who covers sports business for Business Week, researches the issues to illustrate how parents can get caught up in youth competition and visions of college scholarships and professional riches.

The result: too many kids viewing sports not so much as fun but more of a pre-professional curriculum—and often burning out at young ages.

Core Performance: How much should we blame Earl and Tiger Woods for all of this?

Mark Hyman: Too many parents persuaded themselves that this is the path that if you start your kid at an early age there's some advantage. It flows from the Tiger Woods story.

When Tiger was two years old, he appeared on the The Mike Douglas Show with fellow guests Jimmy Stewart and Bob Hope. They set up this golf mat on the set and Tiger took a couple swings into the net.

Who knows how many people saw that? But over the years, people have come to take from that the message that if you start your kids young enough and the training is intense enough, you can get pretty good results. Maybe not Tiger Woods, but a pretty polished athlete. I think that ignores some of the realities of life and raising a child.

CP: Are sports parents today any better or worse than those of past generations?

MH: When you look back 30 or 40 years, you find that parents were very much invested in the sports lives of their kids. That hasn't changed. But what has changed is the notion of sports as a career path.

In the '60s and '70s, there was not this gold rush mentality with scholarships and playing professionally. Now parents pay big money for private coaching, travel teams and medical bills, all with the idea of the kid getting into the college of their parents' choice, preferably with a scholarship.

CP: Ironically, there's not that much money in college scholarships when you look beyond football and men's basketball.

MH: That's an important point to make. The odds of a high school kid playing one minute in college are dismal. Just five percent of high school athletes play in college. If you're looking for a free ride to college through an athletic scholarship, it doesn't happen.

Most of these kids are on partial scholarships that account for just a small amount of the tuition equation. Plus, parents are spending a lot of money to put kids in the position to get that partial scholarship.

Parents are looking for some kind of return on investment. The more you're putting into an enterprise, even your child's sports career, the more you expect in return.

CP: In the book, you tell anecdotes of parents who take their injured kids to doctors and approach the meeting like a visit to the auto mechanic. They're not concerned about the car as much as getting back to the road quickly.

MH: We're not talking about all parents, of course. We're all good parents, we love our kids, but we have these voices that speak to us more loudly to some than others. It's a very disarming thing when your kid is a talented athlete and you want them on the field and you can do some squirrely things.

I have stories in the book from orthopedic surgeons with patients who come in with what clearly are overuse injuries and the parents sole focus is on when the kid can get back to playing.

There's less interest in the problem and whether the kid is okay than there is on how long this is going to keep them out of the lineup. It's an indication of how powerful this notion is that you can train your kid to be the star athlete.

CP: Even you got caught up in this mentality with your own son, Ben.

MH: I felt like if I was going to write this book, this was part of the story I had to tell. When he was a senior in high school—he was a pitcher—he ruptured a tendon in his throwing elbow, a classic overuse injury.

And as I look back on his earlier life playing baseball, where many of those years I was coaching him, it's pretty obvious how that happened. As his coach, there were times when I made bad decisions. When he was 14, he told me his arm wasn't feeling great.

I was so focused on winning the game and out-coaching the guy who was coaching the other team that I kind of ignored what should have been a real warning signal. I sent him out to pitch the next game, to my utter embarrassment now.

After a half dozen pitches, it was evident that he really was hurt. I was startled and ashamed that I put my son in a position that he should have never been in.

CP: Is any of this fun for kids anymore? You never see kids playing pick-up sports or just playing without supervision, for instance.

MH: It's a parenting style and cultural issue. Kids are programmed to be scheduled because two parents are working. The parents don't feel safe for them to wander around the neighborhood. But I think kids don't value free play. They don't value it because we don't value it.

They don't think it's playing sports unless they're wearing a uniform and someone is keeping score. That's not their fault. We've given them the impression that organized sports is sports and anything else isn't valuable. There's something to be said for learning to organize your own game without adults involved.

We know from research that 75 percent of kids 13 and under drop out of sports. You would expect some attrition, but everyone wants to be an athlete. But 75 percent is a startling factor. When they've asked why, the answers are what you'd expect.

The games are too competitive, they didn't have fun, the adults take it too seriously. We understand the problems and the causes, but we're having a tough time coming up with solutions. Reigning in our own adult behavior is what it comes down to.


About The Author

Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.

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Tags: Youth Fitness, Family, Stress, Pressure