…at least for now.
I am a huge sports fan. I am the fan that PVRs and watches every single Olympic event. I have great respect for athletes and admire what they accomplish.
In our own family, we have 3 active sons. They have tried out several sports (soccer, basketball, track, diving, and more) but all ended up in competitive swimming. Partially because our oldest absolutely loved it and then I thought it would be easier if they all followed suite. They all have the great skill of swimming now (a life-skill I might add) and have learned many valuable lessons from the sport and their coaches.
Benefits of sport that I have seen:
- learning about leadership and teamwork
- developing coping mechanisms for anxiety before/during competition
- learning to deal with loss, disappointment and developing resilience
- developing patience and perseverance
- improving social skills and different friends
- building self-esteem and confidence
- discipline and respecting authority
So where did it go wrong?
The demands of the sport as they grew older became larger and a much more demanding commitment time-wise and financially for our family. Our oldest began practice before school, I had to leave work early to get them to the pool, dry land training began and meets spanned entire weekends. Really between the 3 boys we only had Sundays off but not even if there was a swim meet. We even carpooled but it didn’t really put a dent in all the driving. There was really no time for other interests, school sports or socialization with their school friends.
The funny thing was as a mom I was still willing to continue…why? This took we a while to figure out but I’ve realized several things:
- Fear was holding me back from doing the right thing for our family. Fear of my sons not being heavily involved in an activity, leading to getting into trouble as teenagers: drugs, alcohol, poor friend choices, etc. But what I was missing that if my kids are so heavily involved in sport, I won’t have time to connect, teach or build relationships with my children which in turn can lead to the above anyway.
- Being different. (If families are blessed with the income for their children to participate in sport,) I think as parents we can get so caught up in helping our children finding their sport or “thing” that once they find it we can go overboard in lessons, camps, coaching, etc. that help them excel but it doesn’t teach them good life balance. It’s so easy to get sucked into the “more is better mentality” and unfortunately this doesn’t leave time for kids to just be kids.
- Change is difficult. At least for me it is. And I guess this leads me back to fear and fear of the unknown. It’s easier to stay in the same routine and pattern that’s familiar even if it’s destructive or not fully in line with your values.
I cannot recommend or say what the right decision is for other families but I’d just encourage you to make sure what you and your children are involved in aligns with your core values as a family. The demands of our sport started affecting my work, my son began being tired at school, I was getting sick more often, we were rarely able to do the family activities we loved (bike, hike, ski, etc.) and it was becoming quite the challenge to find a Sunday church time that would work. But what was most destructive was that our family meals and time together were suffering. Research has shown that family meals are so important for connection and the health of our children. This fact I could not ignore.
Research has shown that simply sitting down at the kitchen table and sharing family meals has a positive impact on children and teenager’s development. Children and teens that eat regular meals with their family have been shown to have improved food choices, better nutrient intakes, lower eating disorder risk, better social adjustment and improved school performance.
Also, I have witnessed and learned in my dietitian career to be cautious when the only identity your child has is their sport. In working with young adults and teenagers suffering with eating disorders, I have seen many young elite athletes have one sport become the one and only thing they live for. Their whole identity seems to be wrapped up in “I’m a hockey player” or “I’m a dancer”. Great that they have found “their thing” but I see the destructive side when they suddenly cannot play their sport anymore (ie. because of injury, age, etc.). I see a huge loss in identity and young people feeling lost because they have nothing else to turn to. All their time and attention has been devoted to that one sport. I just have to say to encourage your children to diversify and have several interests, hobbies and/or sports.
This leads me to the research that shows that children should diversify… The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) put together an “Early Sport Specialization Consensus Statement” in 2016 because of concerns of this growing trend in children’s sport. (Single sport specialization is defined as 9 months or more of one sport to the exclusion of others.)
The overall results were: “there is no evidence that young children will benefit from early sport specialization in the majority of sports. They are subject to overuse injury and burnout from concentrated activity. Early multisport participation will not deter young athletes from long-term competitive athletic success.” (AOSSM, 2016)
From a public health perspective, why isn’t more being done? According to the AOSSM early sports specialization has actually been identified as damaging for an athlete’s future physical and mental health. From another excellent read “Fear, greed, broken dreams: How early sports specialization is eroding youth sports” J.J. Adams says “These days, alas, the fun in youth sports is rapidly fading, the dreams of children replaced by the ambitions of adults.”(Adams, 2018) I’m hopeful that children’s sport leagues, coaches and parents will all pay attention and learn from this valuable research and information to affect change for the future. My personal hopes are that there will be more opportunities for children’s recreational sport and early sport specialization will become taboo.
So I’m not sure where the future will lead my sons but for now competitive sport is on hold and I’m really excited about all the new possibilities and opportunities for our family!