Many pushy parents are robbing their athlete kids of their youth--and their health

When the high school team I coach was in the state final four a couple of weeks back, a parent from another school came up to me and said, "Your girls are very good. What club team do they play for?" I replied, "None," and she looked at me as though I had slapped her across the face. So naturally, I poured it on. "As a matter of fact, of the 12 girls I have in the program, I would bet that not one of them would name basketball as her favorite sport. They just play whatever sport is in season."

The punch in that sentence comes from the fact the listener must arrive at the startling conclusion that not only do these kids not play on one of those wallet-emptying, false esteem-giving, college scholarship-promising "club" teams; they actually (gasp!) play other school sports besides the one at which they are excelling at the moment.

You just know that in that Stepford head of hers, the message "DOES NOT COMPUTE!" began flashing on and off, and an aneurysm started to blossom.

It's actually true: Eight of my 12 kids play three sports for the school, while the other four play two. They glide effortlessly from volleyball (or soccer) to basketball and then on to softball, doing their best, playing their hardest and, God forbid, having fun. The sad thing is that, with each passing year, these kinds of kids are being marginalized by a perverse system run by obsessive parents and/or money-grubbing adults who see kids not as young people exploring various opportunities, but rather as mini-ATMs that can be bled dry and then tossed away as soon as the next group comes along.

What most professionals will tell you (if only they were asked) is that a form of the Peter Principle is always in effect in youth sports. Each kid can only get so good, depending on a number of factors, which do NOT include personal trainers, travel teams or year-round participation in one sport. All those things do is allow the kid to reach his own level of incompetence a little bit faster than others.

In the past, I coached freshman girls' basketball at both Salpointe Catholic and Amphi (public). I had undefeated teams at both schools, but the success at Amphi was more fulfilling, because those kids got good all of a sudden. That's what happens: The kids who have all the clubs and trainers and the rest of that crap enter high school with an edge, but that edge tends to disappear after a year or two.

Of course, such common sense is lost on many of today's hyper-parents, who will spare no expense to turn little Justin or Courtney into RoboJock. But now comes clear evidence that this course of action is not only robbing kids of their precious youth; it is also destroying their even more-precious health. A recent article in The New York Times outlined in chilling detail how kids in their early or even pre-teens are being pushed beyond their physical limits by shortsighted parents who bask in the artificial glory of a corrupt youth sports system.

The article tells of a 13-year-old girl who played so much soccer that she shredded the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee; the doctor who operated on her said that the joint looked like that of a 40-year-old. Then there's the kid who started competitive swimming at age 7, reached a point where she was swimming 8,000 meters a day, and the only way to ease the pain in her shoulder was to intentionally dislocate it during practice and then pop it back into place when she got out of the pool. And the mother who brought in an injured 11-year-old asked the doctor to perform an emergency surgical procedure so the kid could compete in some regional meet, and then cried when the doctor turned her down.

One doctor is quoted in the article as saying that 70 percent of the athletic-injury cases he sees are caused by simple overuse. He says that kids used to play football, basketball and baseball--sometimes all in the same day. That allowed for muscles to develop in balance. Nowadays, kids play one sport year round and are actually not very good all-around athletes. The aforementioned 13-year-old's injury was probably caused by the fact that playing soccer doesn't develop the hamstrings like other sports do, so it put increased pressure on her knees.

Other doctors say that some parents insist that surgical procedures be done so that the kid can return to the activity that caused the injury in the first place. When the doctors say that the kids need surgery simply to alleviate the pain and to give the kid a chance at normal everyday use again, the parents tend to take it much worse than the kids.

America's active youth middle class is disappearing. With youth obesity on the sharp increase, we are paradoxically becoming a country where most kids need to exercise a lot more, and some kids need to exercise a lot less. Most of all, parents need to exercise some love and common sense.

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