Mini vs. Mature Pros: Physical Activity Across the Lifespan

1 12 2010

Ironically two New York Times articles showed up in my inbox today from different colleagues (thanks ED & ALN) about physical activity on different ends of the age spectrum. I find this ying-yang juxtaposition interesting.

pic by Ann Johansson for The New York Times

One is an article by sports journalist and author Mark Hyman titled “Sports Training Has Begun for Babies and Toddlers”. Hyman knows this topic well as he’s written a book called Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How it Harms our Kids, which I think is one of the best books about youth sport. I have many concerns about the products and programs Hyman details.

First, the target market is not the little ones, but their parents who will do anything to help their child get ahead, “keep up with the Joneses” and do right by their children.  I’d even go a step further and argue the target market is White, middle- to upper-class parents who are highly educated. Some call this demographic of parents “helicopter” parents. Someone told me recently that the youngest members of our society are now being called the Super Millennials and they will be more savvy, entitled, pampered and demanding than Millennials (also known as Gen Y, born between 1981-2000). One of the best books I’ve read about the Millennials is Bruce Tulgan’s “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y.” These sports training programs (Gymtrixx, Baby Goes Pro, athleticbaby, The Little Gym) for Super Millennials and their parents are a perfect example how sports can go wrong and why and how youth sports is becoming increasingly professionalized. I mean the little guys in Hyman’s story have on uniforms!

Kotelko picture by Patrik Giardino for The New York Times

The second article is by Bruce Grierson titled “The Incredible Flying Nonagenarian” about Olga Kotelko. Kotelko is a 91 year old Masters Track & Field athlete who started competing at age 77 and in that time holds 23 world records and has won over 600 gold medals. She is considered one of the world’s greatest athletes. WOW! In the NYT piece if you scroll down a bit, there is a video of her talking about competing and some footage of her in action. Amazing! Tangentially, last spring The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport invited Mariah Burton Nelson to give a Distinguished Lecture on Are Women Aging Successfully? New Thinking and Research about Gender and Physical Activity. You can watch the full length video here.

The reason why I put these two articles together is important. As I stated earlier, youth sport is increasingly professionalized and children are being “trained” at higher levels like “mini pros” at younger and younger ages. While a longitudinal study on the effects of early training, sport specialization, and  year round training without rest periods on children and youth has yet to be done, based on data that does exist in pediatric sports medicine, child development, sports psychology and sports sociology I feel I can safely claim that “sports training” for babies is NOT a good idea.

Here are a few reasons why–early sports training can lead to a host of negative and detrimental psychosocial and physical outcomes like burnout, anxiety and eating disorders due to pressure to perform, lack of lifelong enjoyment of physical activity, chronic and overuse injuries, and drop out of sport altogether. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate of kids being active and encouraging free play with children that develops motor and life skills and love of physical activity, but I think there is a fine line between this approach and some of the companies/products Hyman writes about.

Grieger in his piece about Kotelko nails the important link when he writes, “While most younger masters athletes were jocks in college if not before, many competitors in the higher brackets — say, older than age 70 — have come to the game late. They weren’t athletes earlier in life because of the demands of career and their own growing families. Only after their duties cleared could they tend that other fire.”

Olga Kotelko wasn’t enrolled in “baby sports training” but despite a lack of exposure to this ‘opportunity’, she is a professional athlete. More importantly I’d argue, is that she is an exemplary cautionary tale for eager parents bent on early sport specialization. In the big picture of why parents want their children to participate in sport, what is more important: a) nurturing a lifelong ability and love to participate in physical activity, or b) creating a mini pro that might burn out or not be able to compete in college (let alone later in life) due to over use injuries?





A Funny Video About Youth Soccer Parents

29 11 2010

 

 

A colleague sent me this Xtranormal video today about a youth soccer mom’s advice to the coach. I had to share it.





A Word About the Use of Punishment in Youth Sport

15 11 2010

I get many calls and questions from coaches about the use of punishment in youth sport. Punishment from a sport psychology perspective is adding something an athlete perceives as negative or aversive.

Examples of commonly used punishments yelling, exercise including push-ups & running, and sitting on the bench (adding bench time).

Punishing mistakes is not an effective way to shape behavior, teach life skills (i.e., being on time, listening, focusing attention when the coach is talking) or develop skill. Researchers have proven that positive approach to coaching involves strengthening desired behaviors by recognizing them when they occur and giving information about training and instructions that helps an athletes improve or do it differently is the most effective way to communicate.  A “negative approach” to coaching involves attempts to eliminate a behavior based on criticism and the use of punishment. While punishment can help eliminate an undesired behavior in the short term, it does little for teaching skills that develop over time.

Punishment also has a number of potential negative consequences including:

  • Fear of failure
  • Increases likelihood of choking because athlete is thinking more about mistakes than on what needs to happen to perform well
  • Creates stress and anxiety, especially because it is usually done in front of peer teammates
  • Creates an unpleasant social and learning environment
  • Cohesion is built on hatred of coach
  • Undermines coach-athlete relationship and erodes coach as a positive role model that young athletes look up to and admire
  • Inappropriate modeling (Do we want youngsters to yell and scream at others when mistakes are made?)
  • Embarrassment
  • Resentment
  • Hostility
  • Decreased enjoyment
  • Increased likelihood for drop out
  • Conveys the wrong message about exercise as an enjoyable activity
  • I hope this short piece helps coaches think about their use of punishment in their coaching praxis.





    Summary on Ice Hockey Concussion Summit: What You Need to Know!

    25 10 2010

    Last week I attended the first-ever Ice Hockey Summit: Action on Concussion. The program was impressive and invited speakers in included NHL referee and players, coaches, neurologists, neurosurgeons, neuropsychologists, brain physiologists, sport scientists, coach educators, helmet engineers and manufacturers, biomechanists, researchers, clinical psychologists, athletic trainers, sports medicine and family practice doctors, and representatives from the International Ice Hockey Federation, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada.

    The New York Times wrote two pieces on the summit which are informative (click here and here).

    Here are a few of the important messages that everyone should know about concussions.

    • A concussion is a traumatic brain injury and should be treated and taken seriously. The CDC has a host of wonderful and free materials about concussions that can be accessed here, including specific information about sports concussions.
    • Mouth guards do NOT protect athletes from concussions. Helmets protect from linear focal point hits, but don’t protect from concussions (which primarily are sustained from rotational and linear forces) as well as we think they do.
    • All sport stakeholders should be educated about the signs and symptoms associated with concussions. Concussions in children and youth is a serious issue because the brain is still developing and therefore more vulnerable to lasting concussive side effects (15% of children do not fully recover from concussions).
    • If an athlete is suspected of having a concussion, he/she should NOT Return To Play (RTP) in that game or that day. Period. “When in Doubt, Sit Them Out!
    • The decision for Return To Play  should only be given by a trained medical professional, not by coaches, parents or placed in the hands of the athlete. RTP is a medical decision. Both physical and cognitive rest are needed following a concussion. Even when an athlete is asymptomatic, the brain is still recovering. Returning to play too early places the athlete at greater risk for another concussion, potentially long lasting side effects, and increases the likelihood of a full recovery.
    • A concussed brain is a metabolic crisis which creates a “chemical soup” that bathes the brain. Metabolic recovery of the brain Lags behind 30-45 days symptomatic resolution. What this means is that even when an athlete shows no signs of concussion and is physically recovered, the brain is still healing.
    • Multiple brain injuries, like repetitive concussions, places the individual at greater risk for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)–an emerging disorder that was frightening to hear about. For more about CTE and the work of Dr. Ann McKee and colleagues at Boston University School of Medicine click here,
    • A cultural and behavioral shift needs to occur in hockey to help reduce the incidence of concussions and protect athletes. The belief  that brutal hits and fights are entertaining, especially in professional hockey, creates an environment in which illegal should-to- head hits are tolerated, not penalized, and fights are allowed to continue (18% of concussions happen during fights). This belief in turn trickles down to the youth level, where such behaviors are learned, valued, and taught. Evidence that behavior around illegal and dangerous behaviors can be changed as the Hockey Education Program in Minnesota has shown with the implementation of the Fair Play Point system.




    More Thoughts on Equal Playing Time in Youth Sports

    10 08 2010

    Thank you for everyone who weighed in and took the time to provide insight and opinions on equal playing time in youth sports for a previous blog. It is clear playing time is a pressing issue across all sectors of youth sport and parents, coaches, and administrators alike are struggling to make informed decisions.

    Existing and emerging evidence from child development, pediatric sports medicine, sport psychology, sport sociology, and moral development seems to point to the idea that equal playing time is imperative for children up to age 12 (and some would argue age 14).

    From my observations and interactions with youth sport stakeholders the debate over playing time starts with differing views on the purpose of youth sport and the tension between winning/being competitive and athlete development/fun/enjoyment. I reject the notion that winning, athlete development and fun/enjoyment can’t simultaneously be achieved. This dichotomous thinking is part of the problem in organized youth sport.

    Adults who run, organize, and coach youth sport consider many factors when making decisions about playing time and arguably factors change in weight as the child gets older. The graphic in Figure 1:  Playing Time Considerations illustrate this complexity.

    I’ve outlined EFFORT in red as this is one of the few factors that a child can control. Giving full effort in practice and games regardless of the situation is a very important life lesson that can be taught and learned through participation in sport.

    A father in a recent sport parent workshop asked me about the danger of “teaching children to be  mediocre” by awarding equal playing time. His point was that a child who didn’t work hard or give full effort would automatically be awarded the same playing time as a child who was working hard, and that if playing time weren’t used as “the carrot” (i.e., you work hard, you get to play) that kids wouldn’t work hard. It was a good question.

    To answer his question used evidence and borrowed some wisdom from my colleague Clark Power, Ph.D., a scholar in moral development and Director of the Play Like a Champion Educational Series at the University of Notre Dame. Power argues playing time is not a reward for displaying virtue, it is a means for developing virtue. I also pointed out the carrot approach is a problematic way of using playing time. First, children need to be taught that working hard is an inherent part of sports, skill development, and life. Children should want to work hard because it is inherently enjoyable, as hard work can lead to improvement, satisfaction, sense of self worth, accomplishment, and many more positive outcomes. These intrinsic motives for giving full effort will lead to a much greater likelihood of long term participation than using playing time as an extrinsic reward that can be taken away or awarded by adults.

    Second, up until age 10-11, developmentally children cannot discern between effort and ability. They equate effort with being good at something. Therefore, under an unequal playing time system a child who gives full effort but does not get to play, is likely to think he is not good at that sport. Based on evidence in sport psychology, perception of competence is one of the biggest predictors of enjoyment and sustained participation. The take home message here:  a child who believes he is incompetent because he is sitting on the bench even thought he believes he’s given effort in practices, will be much more likely to drop out. If he drops out before he can understand cognitively that effort and ability are not always the same, and that effort is a virtue, then he will not reap the developmental and health benefits which can be accrued through sport participation.

    A great deal more evidence than what I’ve presented here exists in support of an “equal playing time through age 12” youth sport policy, but this is an evidence-based food for thought starting point for youth sport stakeholders to consider. For more information on youth sports visit the Minnesota Youth Sport Research Consortium.





    A Question About Equal Playing Time in Youth Sports

    27 07 2010

    Sidelined

    I’ve been asked to give an evidence-based presentation to a youth sport association on equal playing time. I’m interested in what you think about this issue. Here are the questions I have:

    1. Why should youth sports have/not have equal playing time?

    2. Who should decide?

    3. If you believe in equal playing time, at what age should equal playing time cease?

    If you have solutions , ideas of opinions, please leave a comment.





    Sustainable Physical Activity & Golfing Mothers

    6 07 2010

    I’ll be gone for a few days to London for a think tank workshop on examining and verifying a systems model approach of sustainable physical activity. I will have more to report upon returning. The most interesting part is the company that is sponsoring the think tank. I’m not sure I can reveal the company, so before I get myself in trouble, I’ll keep you in suspense.

    In the meantime, take a look at the New York Times series on the LPGA and motherhood here and here (thanks ES!). Anyone want to comment?