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Another problem with youth sports

Published March 05. 2011 09:00AM

Eighteenth century philosopher David Hume never received any academic position he sought. That's because his writings struck some as so anti-religious that they would speak out vehemently against him, so vehemently that universities were hesitant to hire him.

Yet the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy now calls Hume "the most important philosopher ever to write in English," and his words that incensed so many back then seem tame today.

Are you, for instance, taking time out of your day to attend a rally against a man because he wrote: "The errors of religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous"?

But if we have a modern-day Hume apply to be your school district's athletic director and state that booster club sports will no longer be permitted to use school district facilities because "the errors of organized booster club youth sports are dangerous; those in school sports are only ridiculous," now we just might have an angry mob at the next school board meeting gathered solely to speak out against him.

In response, this hypothetical Hume could eloquently explain how the organized youth sports environment littered with Lombardi-like coaches, overly intense parents, and an emphasis on winning rather than having fun actually depletes the pool of potential secondary school athletes rather than enhances it, yet it's unlikely that true booster club believers would be swayed by his words. In fact, they'd probably speak so adamantly against him that the school board wouldn't hire him.

And while this entire scenario is purely speculative, I fear it is accurate and definitely a shame, especially when another element is added.

Recent research slated for an April publication date in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine shows that three out of every four children who participate in the major organized spring sports don't get the suggested amount of exercise needed to be in shape.

National health guidelines suggest that children and teens receive 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a day. When Desiree Leek, B.S. of San Diego State University and colleagues had 200 youth sports athletes participating in baseball, softball, and soccer to wear sensors that measured physical activity, only 48 athletes reached the guideline during practice, with the percentages varying significantly when broken down by age and sport.

Fewer than 2 percent of girl softball players met the guideline, for example, and only 10 percent of all athletes tested between the ages of 11 and 14 met the mark.

Yet these paltry numbers were not a product of short practices. Leek and colleagues found that some baseball and softball practices lasted more than three and a half hours. Overall, all the sport practices soccer included! averaged 30 minutes where participants were totally inactive.

These numbers show that youth sports is a less-than-effective way to battle the burgeoning childhood obesity problem, so part of the article that has already been released online suggests specific ways to increase exercise time during youth sports participation. Unfortunately, some are impractical, others already done, and one works against the others.

For instance, it's impractical to ask volunteer coaches to increase an already-demanding time commitment by "increasing practice frequency" and "extending short seasons." While "providing coaches strategies to increase physical activity" makes sense, this too would require additional time from volunteers in the form of attending workshops or passing mandated classes.

While "sponsoring teams for all skill levels" is already accomplished in many communities by offering both in-house and travel teams, this distinction often breeds a bad mindset: in-house games are played for fun; travel games are played to win.

Since the starters of travel teams are frequently determined by which participants have already reached puberty (or have a parent willing to coach) and a play-to-win mindset has most of the game minutes going to the starters, the others potential "late bloomers" often lose interest and stop playing the sport, a decision that may hurt their immediate health and the long-term health of that specific high school sport.

Yet what is just as likely to occur in an intense travel team situation is burnout. As a 10-, 11-, and 12-year old, I played on a football team that won three local league championships and often played extra games outside the community.

While I was the only player not to play in junior high (I wanted to focus on basketball and baseball), only one other teammate played for the high school during his senior year. When I asked a senior who had played on a different youth team one who could bench press 315 pounds and would get a scholarship to Penn State to run the hurdles he claimed he quit simple because he was just "sick" of the sport.

He wasn't sick of track because his first experience with it had been as an eighth grader.

So given all this information, what rules or advice should a parent give a child about organized youth sports participation? Those, I believe, are as individual as each child, but I do believe this much can be said.

We must eliminate the idea that athletics and exercise are one in the same.

Softball, for instance, is a great sport. Participating in it at an early age has many social benefits.

But unless the coach is demanding an hour of conditioning drills be done as part of every practice and according to the latest research very few do your daughter probably needs to engage in moderate to intense exercise either before or after practice or she's just another out-of-shape kid who, albeit one who knows what to do with a ball and a glove.

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