Fall baseball? Winter swimming? It’s not just a crazy line your grade-schooler is feeding you — all the other kids really ARE getting into year-round sports. Super-sized sports seasons keep children busy all year long, and family schedules bob and weave around practices and meets in all four seasons. If your idea of an idyllic childhood is a smorgasbord of activities with plenty of time left for daydreaming and mud pies, you’ll want to take stock and consider whether the year-round trend is one you’ll want your child to jump in and join – or vote no pass, no play.
According to the National Institute for Sports Reform, roughly 22 million 6- to 18-year-olds participate in youth sports programs such as Little League baseball and Pop Warner football, about 16 million athletes are involved in intramural or interscholastic sports, and 2 million are involved in club or fee-based programs. Back at school, governing organizations such as the UIL (University Interscholastic League, the group that oversees public school extracurricular academic, athletic and musical competitions) keep tight reins on how much time students are allowed to devote to their specialty. But organized sports have long since spilled over carefully corralled school programs. As young as 4 and 5, children are joining youth leagues and teams with seasons that stretch out to virtually year-round activity – a concentrated focus that some experts say may be too much, too soon.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children who are involved in sports broaden their activities and develop a wide range of skills, noting that children who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after puberty tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries and stay active in sports longer than those who specialize early. Burnout is not uncommon among the young athletes seen by local counselor Dr. Koy Roberts. “You would be amazed at what kids really think and feel when they are out of earshot of Mom and Dad,” he sighs. “I hear about dreading practices, fatigue, little to no time to play with friends and the stress to perform at a higher level.
They are afraid to speak up because they know Dad laid down $3,000 for the season plus gear, expenses and traveling.”
The best teams take a holistic approach to their young athletes’ lives and schedules. Mook Rhodenbaugh, head coach of the Dallas Mustangs swim team (which goes all the way from learn-to-swim programs for youngsters to Olympic-level training for elite athletes), outlines a philosophy that emphasizes lighter involvement for younger children under 12. “We don’t want our program to prevent them from getting involved in other things,” he explains. “You don’t know what your forte will be until you get older. We want our swimmers to learn about the sport but have time to play soccer and take music and try everything under the sun.” While training demands escalate sharply for teens who’ve made a commitment to compete at an elite level, Rhodenbaugh tells of experienced parents who watchdog overambitious new parents. “Other parents step in one-on-one up in the stands and tell them ‘Back off – your kid will do great things if you’ll let him go and give him a chance to have fun doing this now,’” he says.