Recent studies into the long-term effects of concussions and head trauma have forced parents across the nation to reconsider which sports they allow their children to participate in. While there has always been an accepted risk associated with sports at any level, recent studies have caused even President Barack Obama to voice his uncertainty if he would let his son play football.
However, former ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated columnist Jeff Pearlman has even more doubts about the effects of team sports on youths. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Pearlman wrote, “My children don’t need the hostilities of organized youth athletics to make them whole. If anything, they need to do without them.” Pearlman took issue with the ostracizing effect a lack of skill can have on children, and how over-competitive parents can undermine the lessons of good sportsmanship. Furthermore, he added that coaches — who should act as positive role models — sometimes confuse teaching determination with demeaning and demoralizing players.
Perhaps Pearlman is right: With the sports story of the week being Dolphins’ offensive lineman Richie Incognito’s bullying and racial slurs toward teammate Jonathan Martin, maybe the whole idea of learning teamwork and positive social skills through sports is simply an outdated myth.
However, Pearlman’s plan to have his children avoid youth sports is far from a solution. Personally, I had a very positive experience with sports throughout my childhood and adolescence. I survived the then-devastating no-win soccer season of fifth grade and dealt with the coaches who held practice while there was a tornado warning only a few miles away. Through my sports career I learned how, through hard work and determination, I could maximize whatever natural skills I had and achieve lofty goals. For me it was never a debate: I was going to play.
Pearlman ignores experiences similar to my own and focuses on the struggles of his then-un-athletic and somewhat socially awkward brother. We all had that friend or sibling growing up — mine was my brother, too. While he could, and probably still can, backpack farther in a day than I could in a week, let’s just say by fifth grade his future prospects of making our beloved St. Louis Cardinals were not looking good. In Pearlman’s eyes, this is the exact individual whose confidence is destroyed and whose growth is limited by team sports.
As an Eagle Scout, Oberlin College graduate and someone who’s currently pursuing his childhood dream of becoming a scientist, I think my brother is doing just fine. Though I won’t begin to guess what lessons my brother feels he learned from his years of sports, it is a stretch to say that any challenges he faced in his youth sports career caused any consequential setbacks.
While Pearlman’s arguments are not without merit, over-emphasizing these concerns can quickly lead into parents being overprotective. Beyond the proven benefits youth sports have fighting childhood obesity and reducing adolescent crime, University alum Marilyn Price-Mitchell, who has a Ph.D. in human development, outlines that though there are pitfalls in youth sports, studies show that the psychological effects are still positive overall. Youth athletes who participate in sports through middle and high school are stronger academically and have better opportunities in job markets. She adds that many of the issues Pearlman outlines can be mitigated through balancing a variety of types of activities and participating above the bare minimum in youth sports.
Instead of restricting choices, parents should encourage children to try a variety of new things to discover their own personal interests. That may include forcing a year or two of a musical instrument or signing up for a few tennis lessons, but it’s a parent’s responsibility to create, not limit, opportunities for their children. This encouragement at a young age will force teenagers to make difficult decisions when it becomes time to specialize in their respective activities. My brother had to choose between piano and the saxophone, I had to choice between baseball and soccer, but in both of these circumstances it was our choice — we have to take responsibility for it.
Knowing how to prioritize and weigh consequences is a critical skill to learn early. Instead of impinging on children’s interests, parents should take an active role in their activities to ensure a positive and healthy experience. While safety concerns clearly illustrate a new challenge in deciding which sports children should play, youth sports still provide positive experiences and a chance for growth throughout adolescence.
Timothy Burroughs can be reached at email@example.com.