Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Posts Tagged ‘hockey’

The Expense of Early Sport Specialization

My role in the horse world to date has been little more than loyal supporter. This includes my posts as head cheerleader, financier, and klutzy outsider comic relief (for example, I always seem to be over- or under-dressed). My ROI is measured in the smiles on my girls’ faces over the years. They have seemed to truly enjoy the process, the journey, sometimes with little regard to the outcome or the score.

Everything about the horse world is expensive. Really expensive, actually. There are lots of expensive sports out there to be sure. Golf, tennis, and hockey come quickly to mind. All have in common expensive equipment, coaching, and venues, even at the lowest levels of participation. Most other sports only become expensive when you add in the effects of higher level competition with the new burdens of professional coaching and travel. Think AAU anything, gymnastics or swimming.

One thing that sets the horse world apart is the Sugar Daddy or Sugar Momma, a usually over-monied individual whose sole role is to write checks. Big checks. Lots and lots of checks. Most whom I’ve met don’t really seem to enjoy hanging around horses, actually. Kinda like someone who owns a big boat but gets seasick in the bathtub. The other essential difference between a Sugar Daddy/Momma and a “Little League Parent” is that the Sugar Daddy/Momma doesn’t care a lick about the outcome of the event.

In a funny, very roundabout way this makes me think about youth sports, high school sports, and the behavior of parents in that world. Unlike the Sugar Daddy/Momma the youth sports parent is highly invested in outcomes, not only game by game but also in terms of reaching the next level. As in that level to which the ridiculously large percentage of participants never get. You probably think this is about going pro, about making a living at your sport. Nope. That number is so tiny and has been parsed so many times and so many ways that it’s not worth spending the electrons thinking about how few college athletes or minor leaguers make it to The Show. I’m not even talking about getting a scholarship to play a D1 sport.

What I’m thinking about is some fascinating facts about how few high school athletes go on to play a sport at any level in college.

Seriously, the numbers are comically low. Cut and past this for a look: http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/estimated-probability-competing-college-athletics. For boys, only lacrosse and hockey are above 10%. More boys go on to swim in college (7.1%) than play football (6.8%). The statistics are similar for girls led by Ice hockey (24%), lacrosse (12.9%), and field hockey (10.1%); all other sports are in the low to mid-single digits. I don’t know about you, but with all of the teams sponsored by Division 3 colleges out there, along with the dearth of multi-sport athletes taking up more than one slot, these figures are really shockingly low.

How, then, can we justify the expense of early sport specialization, both in real financial terms, and in terms of the epidemic of injuries suffered through over-use and under-preparation?

On my most recent foray into the horse world I met a  youngster who plays on a volleyball team that uses CrossFit to enhance their fitness.  She no longer does her first-love sport, tumbling, because of a repetitive use stress fracture in her back suffered before she started to play other sports. All tumbling all the time wrecked her. How many young arms must we scar with a Tommy John “autograph” prior to obtaining a driver’s license before we suggest adding in a little winter reprieve from pitching? Isn’t it just a bit disheartening to think that the ACL tear rate in young female soccer players is higher than the overall NCAA participation rate for girls who played that sport in high school? Mind you, these are TOTAL participation rates, not the percentages of kids who got a scholarship to play D1. The list goes on and on.

Says here that the kids would be far better off playing more sports with their buddies in their hometown schools, both physically and mentally, than they are now joining elite travel programs and chasing after such a small number of slots at the next level. Probably have a better relationship with Mom and Dad, too. For sure Mom and Dad are likely to be better behaved. Throw in a little bit of fitness training that emphasizes proper mechanics in functional movements and maybe we can start a trend.

No Sugar Daddies or Mommas necessary, either.

The Role Of Adults In Youth Sports II: Teach

At the news conference following a heartbreaking overtime loss, the head coach of Boise State had this to say: “one player can’t lose a football game all by himself. A player can WIN the game, but no one can lose it by themselves.” How good is that?! Seriously, after losing the opportunity to represent every underdog in the history of forever, in a football championship game for the ages, what does the coach do? He sees the situation for what it is, what it always is when you are an adult involved in youth sports; he sees this as just another “teachable moment.”

It’s gone so far beyond the cliché that they are life lessons to be learned by children playing sports that many of the adults who are involved in youth sports seem to have taken this for granted and just assumed that it will happen automatically. BZZZZZZT. Sorry. It doesn’t work like that. Never did. The second most important role that adults play in youth sports is to foster and facilitate learning among the children playing sports.

It’s pretty easy in the beginning. Heck, if you are coaching very little kids you actually have to teach them the rules of the game! I once tried to teach a bunch of kids in England play baseball. Piece of cake, you say. They play a game called “rounders” which is very similar to baseball, with a little bit of  Cricket mixed in.  Rounders doesn’t have foul lines, though, and English kids have no concept of what a foul ball is. I spent pretty much the entire game trying to explain why a perfectly good hit just to the right of first base didn’t count. In the beginning being an adult in youth sports is ALL about learning, ALL about teaching.

There’s a really cool phase in youth sports, whether you are a coach, booster, or simply an interested spectator, when the kids get the rules, they know how to keep score, and you are simultaneously teaching them technique and nuance while at the same time trying to win. Junior high school, Junior varsity in high school, times like this. This can be the most satisfying time to be an adult involved in sports. Somewhere in high school the “win mode” kicks in so strongly that teaching and learning can go by the boards, all teaching and learning geared toward just one measure, the one lighting up the scoreboard.

It’s not just about the game though of course. This would be a pretty trivial post if it was, eh? No, playing sports, especially team sports, leaves open all kinds of possibilities for learning. Even if you are the absolute star of a football team or basketball team or any other type of team, being part of the team means learning how to depend on your teammates. It means learning how to have other people depend on you. You have certain responsibilities, and the success of the team depends on you and everyone else doing exactly what they’ve been taught to do at exactly the right time. I’m going to my office in a very short time where I will be a member of yet another team. All of the lessons I’ve learned from all of my teams over the years come into play every time I go to the office. Same thing in the operating room this morning. Good outcomes depend on impeccable teamwork, with each team member doing exactly what he or she should be doing. Some may get more credit than others, at least publicly, but playing team sports should teach each athlete that he or she succeeds only if the team succeeds. The adults who are involved in youth sports have an obligation to teach this lesson to both the stars and the grunts.

Winning and losing are important measures, but it really DOES matter how you play the game. Did you play within the rules, even when no one could see whether or not you did? Did you cheat, break a rule that gave you or your team and advantage? Some of the individual sports are the best opportunities to learn these lessons. Have you seen those PGA commercials about the First Tee program for youngsters playing golf? Integrity and fidelity to the rules are mentioned by everyone. Adults should not only teach this but should also model these behaviors and attributes. What is your athlete learning if you use the “foot wedge” in the rough?

It’s possible to learn some very valuable lessons about how one might meet adversity in life simply by playing youth sports. How do you handle winning? Success that just can’t be hidden? Conversely, how do you handle it when life throws you an enormous curveball, and you look at terrible on a swing and a miss? Humility in victory, and grace in defeat are lessons that are there to be learned by our children playing sports. Sometimes all it takes is a gentle reminder, maybe even just setting a quiet example. There are other times when the designated adult must demonstrate a firm hand in teaching the lesson. I have visions of golf clubs helicoptering across fairways, tennis rackets splintering during fits of rage, trash talking and posturing under the basket or in the end zone. Failing to intervene and teach the PROPER lesson is nothing short of inexcusable if you are the adult present at those times.

It doesn’t sound easy, does it? I mean, that’s a lot of responsibility. It kind of sounds like… WORK! And it is, if you get right down to it. The adults who are involved in youth sports have great responsibilities, and they really have no right to expect a pass when it comes to fulfilling these responsibilities. This goes for coaches on the sidelines, officials on the field, parents in the stands, and boosters and administrators behind the scene. The opportunity to teach our children about fair play, following the rules, and being a good teammate are there for the taking. Even when it becomes time to win, as we saw in the example above with Boise State was on the verge of making history, there but for a missed 26 yard field goal, the imperative to teach our children, to foster their learning through sports, is one that we simply must seize as the adults involved in youth sports. Just like that head coach at Boise State.

They may not know it now, but every one of those Boise State football players walked off that field with a win because their coach played his role.