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Nurture young athletes by knowing when it's too soon to push

| Tuesday, July 27, 2004

This is the time of year when we start planning our kids' fall activities. We decided to let each daughter choose a sport and a cultural activity. Body and mind. Both girls chose gymnastics; the 5-year-old will take art class and the 7-year-old will play the violin -- but only if Mom takes lessons too.

It's a very full plate, and I'm not sure we can do it all, but I feel compelled to try. I think about the many things I wish I could do now as an adult, such as play the violin, which would have been easier had I started as a kid. Also, let's face it, I am a product of my time in which we parents feel we have to enrich our children by signing them up for extra-school activities.

A friend and I were laughing about this. His teenagers are attending summer camp for film-making and classical guitar. Nobody is content with plain old camp anymore, it seems. No lanyards made from gimp for this crowd.

I find that I am disappointed that my daughters did not choose soccer again as their sport. We had fun playing last year and met a lot of nice families. It was a good social outlet for my husband and me, as well as the girls. I acknowledge the selfishness in my desire to have the girls play, and it makes me wonder whether there isn't some selfishness in much of today's trend of enriching the kids.

Sue MacDonald, a member of the Parenthood Panel that contributes to this column, believes pushing kids into sports at age 5 or 6 is too early. Of course, we are all hurrying to channel the children into select teams that begin forming by age 9 or so. And to qualify, the kids have to be winning.

"The 'winning' mindset sets in much earlier than it used to," writes Sue, whose youngest just graduated from high school. "I'm almost sure that the neighborhood games of impromptu kickball and whiffle ball we threw together as kids were a lot more fun than organized games that kids sign up for today."

It wasn't until junior high or high school that her two kids, a boy and a girl, found the sports they really liked and chose themselves.

"Maybe my kids were late bloomers," she writes. But other kids who had been playing since age 5 or 6 were burned out by the time they reached high school.

News stories about teams that quit playing because the rivalry was too intense worry some Pittsburgh area parents. In March, the Sharon school board voted to cancel all boys' basketball and football games against rival Farrell for the season, because of a rumble in the stands after a basketball game that left three police officers injured.

"Why, as adults, can we not hold onto the joy of watching our children learn new skills and enjoy a sport?" writes Katie Mueller of Gibsonia. This thought came to her after a particularly positive T-ball game.

"All the parents cheered for every child on both teams," she writes. "I and many other parents had a nice glow after the game."

Yet clearly this gets lost in competition. A survey last year by SportingKid magazine revealed that 84 percent of parents had witnessed violence against kids, coaches and game officials -- by the other parents.

We see incredible athletes like Tiger Woods or Olga Korbut who were trained in their sports as youngsters, and we think we all need to get on that bandwagon. But I don't think you nurture a great athlete by killing their love of the game. Pushing too hard, too early can exact that price.

Sharon Samuto, a Parenthood Panel member from Mars, remembers her son, then 8 or 9, having to choose between baseball and Boy Scouts. "We tried to divide his time between the two," she writes, "but the coach got really nasty with me when I said I'd have to take him to Scouts midway through a game."

They lost interest in baseball, and her son went on to become an Eagle Scout. He ran cross-country in high school, Sharon says, and the players were supportive of teammates.

It's important to take the measure of the atmosphere our children play in and make sure it's one that encourages joy and healthy competition. Americans love to compete and win, and that's not something I would change. But we need to keep the pressure turned down to an age-appropriate setting.

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