August 22nd, 2014

High-pressure sports: how much is too much?

In today’s world of high-pressure sports programs, parents can have a difficult time evaluating what is in their child’s best interest. The possibility of a college scholarship and the lure of ever-higher levels of competition can draw families into programs that demand incredible time and financial commitments.
But, how much is too much? What are the risks of this culture of intensity for the individual child and for the future of youth sports? And, most importantly, what can be done about any of it?
Richard Ginsburg, Ph.D., co-director of PACES Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, director of psychological services for MGH’S Sports Concussion Clinic, private clinician and co-author of “Whose Game is it Anyway,” directs research and works with young athletes and their families struggling with issues around sports and performance.
A former school teacher, coach and college athlete and a parent of two children, ages 7 and 9, Ginsburg spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about his work and the concerns he has about the direction youth sports is headed in this country.

Q:  Obviously youth sports has changed a lot in the past 30 years. What are your major concerns?

 A: “The more the better, the earlier the better” is driving what is happening with these sports. People believe that early specialization is the way to go and children who haven’t even developed a sense of their own interests are being asked to commit to sports exclusively.

Q: What age is too early?


 A: We hear about kids who have to choose at 8 or 9 years old. They can’t continue to play other sports and they have to invest considerable amounts of time and money for a dream that is not likely to be fulfilled. The dream of playing professionally is extremely unlikely and we know from various data that the chances of playing any form of collegiate sports is approximately 5 percent.

Q:  What are the issues you see from this level of intensity around sports?

A:  Family structures are being disrupted. Children in middle and high school years are not learning about how to develop responsibility through work. The rate of injury is higher. The rates of burnout and stress are higher.

What comes into a psychologist’s office might sound like, “What happened to our daughter, she used to be so good. Can you fix her?” And there might be some skills that could strengthen her approach, but she is only 12 and she is not equipped to handle this kind of pressure.

It’s not that parents are bad, and I see myself as the same as other parents, but it is hard in an environment this intense to step back and have perspective.

The system is really imbalanced. The profit industry is driving this because, if the message is that you have to train early to get the scholarships, people will write the checks.

I am a big proponent of what physical exercise and sports can give kids, but it is so unregulated and growing at such a rapid and uncontrolled rate that many of the benefits are getting shadowed by the ills of this “profit at the expense of kids.”


Q:  How do we change the trajectory of youth sports?

  A: A lot comes back to a broader question of culture. The NCAA and professional leagues are dictating this when decisions are getting made about kids in 8th or 9th grade getting scholarships. That is unregulated.

There needs to be more regulation: travel team doesn’t start until you are 14; college recruiters are not allowed to give offers or speak to any athletes until the summer of their junior year. But who is going to pull the trigger on that and who has the influence to make the change? Many people have tried to influence the culture and big influential institutions like the NCAA without success.


Q:  Besides the question of whether it will help them get into college, if the sport is child-driven and there are not major issues, do you see a reason to pull back?

 A: As a general principle, if someone is passionate about something and motivated to do it, that is a good thing. The complexity comes when they have to give up so much else.

Q: What do you recommend parents do?

A:  It has to be evaluated on a season-by-season basis. I think as clinicians we can help families evaluate what they are doing. Does this schedule work? Do you have down time, friends outside, enough rest? How are you doing academically? Plus, what is the quality of the family time?

It is okay to have dreams, but you need to understand the data and be able to pay attention to the signs if your child is not driving it, having phantom injuries, doesn’t want to go to practice. The pros might begin to be outweighed by the cons.

We have to be savvy as clinicians about how we ask the questions. A kid in front of his parents will always say they love the sport so you need to find other questions like, “How do you think your parents would feel if you did not play?”

Q:  Do you have parents feeling combative about your suggestions?

 A: When you are talking about parenting, it is a highly vulnerable position. It is difficult, even when you come to get help, to hear that something you are doing might not be in the best interest of your child. So I really try to side with parents about the challenge of being a parent, about the many mistakes I make.

I also remind parents that a big part of the job is to be loving and present and consistent. I would rather be a parent who is overdriving my kid and being too invested than someone that is neglecting. Maybe they will say, “My dad pushed me too hard,” but they are not going to say, “My dad didn’t care.”

But stepping away from a sport can be very difficult.

Plus, there are social implications for families who travel with their kids every weekend because that becomes their peer group and they lose that.

And jumping off the boat is difficult. You don’t want to say, okay, we spent 30 hours a week with our child in soccer and we now realize it is not going anywhere so we are going to stop it all and do something completely different. I just made this investment and it was the wrong one.

Q: What about looking at it as spending seven or eight years doing something together, having a run with this sport that in itself was an experience? It doesn’t all have to be about the outcome, right?

A: Right, and that is the job of the therapist, to be able to rephrase something like that, to say, “This isn’t quitting, this is moving on.”

But I would say that is a hard thing to stomach when your next door neighbor’s kid is making it to next level.

Q:  When the ride ends, what do you want people to get out of it?

 A: We want our kids to be active, healthy adults with good exercise habits. If we can get them to love something by the time they graduate from high school and college and still want to do it, I’d say, “Job well done.”

That is what our goal is: you make the best with what you got and enjoy the ride, as you said.  

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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