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.





Another Example of Constructing Gender

23 11 2010

As a scholar who examines gender in the context of sport I’m always interested in the ways the media arbitrarily construct gender–meaning the images we see in the media tell “us” what it means to be a girl or boy, and what is appropriately feminine and masculine.

I have a long disdain for the “pink-ifying” of girls and the non-stop Princess narrative which bombards girls from the youngest ages. I’ve followed the blog PinkStinks for awhile and love their content. PinkStinks is a campaign and social enterprise that challenges the ‘culture of pink’ which invades every area of girls’ lives. A friend and colleague recently sent me this picture which depicts the dichotomous nature of how gender is constructed in the media. Her rhetorical question to me was: Why does it have to be “versus’ and not ‘and’? Can’t a girl be both a princess AND and tomboy?

According to Star, Girl Princesses wear bling and like to be pampered, while it is unladylike to be violent, wear clothes associated with boys, and have an interest in dead things. My point here is: Who got to decide these behaviors are appropriate or not for girls? Is this really newsworthy? (I suppose you could argue Star really isn’t news)

What message does this send young girls? We need more Princess Free Zones (PFZ) that allow girls the freedom to express all parts of who they are and want to be without sanction from society, peers, and parents. I would also argue the behaviors for what is means to be a boy should be more inclusive and broadened. Here is a Anti-Princess Reading List.

I would argue sport has the potential to be a great PFZ, but only if coaches and parents allow free expressions of gender and resist using stereotyping language that reinforces outdated gender dichotomies.





What Can Coaches Use Besides Punishment?

17 11 2010

In my last blog A Word About the Use of Punishment in Youth Sport I wrote about some of the potential negative consequences of using punishment. Punishment from a sport psychology perspective is adding something an athlete perceives as negative or aversive (i.e., sprints, push-ups, yelling).

When I present the idea that coaches should use punishment sparingly, if at all, I get some concerned looks. Many coaches are fearful that if they can’t use punishment, then the athletes on their team will not pay attention, run amok, and all “you know what” will break out. This concerned look quickly leads to a raised hand, “Well, what do you suggest we do besides using punishment?”

So I’m posing this question to all the coaches out there who read this blog: What do you use to get athletes to pay attention, stop screwing around, teach a life lesson, reduce the likelihood the behavior will happen again, focus, or do something correctly that isn’t a punishment?

Leave your comment here. After people weigh in I will also offer some suggestions, but I want to hear your creative strategies.





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.





    Hazing Has No Place in Sports

    28 10 2010

    Every week I hear stories from across the country about hazing in sport contexts. The recent attention nationally around bullying, including a stand from the White House, illustrates the seriousness of these issues and that social change is necessary. Here in Minnesota a hazing incident involving a MN high school football team garnered a lot of media attention. Unfortunately, stories of hazing in high school and college sports is not uncommon. I teach a hazing unit  in my Psychology of Coaching class, so I’ve been thinking about this issue for some time.

    I feel it is important to educate current and future coaches, parents and athletes that hazing has no place in sports (or any context!). Here are some of the reasons why hazing should not be tolerated, punished swiftly and severely, and not minimized as harmless “teasing.”  To hear me talk about hazing, you can watch an interview I did with Fox 9 News.

    There are some great resources available about hazing including HazingPrevention.org and StopHazing.org

    • Hazing is a serious issue in which psychological or physical harm is intentionally inflicted in order to gain membership to a group, and in that way it is different than teasing. The guidelines for what constitutes hazing can be found here.
    • Many myths of hazing include: it is harmless, the victim agreed or consented to do it so it isn’t that big of a deal, it is tradition, it teaches respect and discipline, or it is just kids having fun…but these are just that, myths. Hazing is an act of power and control over others. One of the myths is that hazing is just “boys being boys.” If physical and psychological harm is attributed to “boys being boys” than this societal belief needs to be challenged and changed. What does this message teach young men and boys? Unfortunately this type language is used repeatedly to normalize or minimize the bad behavior of those who haze.
    • Hazing is typically used as a means to achieve team membership, improve performance, teach respect or discipline, reflect a sign of tradition, and/or to facilitate team bonding, but in reality hazing events are embarrassing, degrading, can be physically and/or psychologically harmful, can cause resentment and hostility, and undermine trust, positive relationships, and team cohesion.
    • It is quite common despite educational efforts to thwart the occurrence of hazing. Exact numbers are not known due to the fact most hazing goes unreported as the victims are under a veil of secrecy, don’t want to call out their peers, and face the potential of more hazing, retaliation, or losing friends. Statistics vary but between 50-80% of all students report being hazed.
    • Most kids, and many adults, think hazing is normal and just accept it uncritically, but there are some questions that can be asked to help discern if it is indeed hazing.
      • Am I asked to keep it a secret?
      • Would I want my parents, teachers, principle or coach to know?
      • Would I want this in the newspapers or on TV?
      • Is there risk of injury or is it safe?
    • Hazing is common enough to cause concern. Experts on hazing argue proactive, consistent, and explicit educational effort to coaches, parents, and athletes is the best preventative measure along with firm policies and strong consequences. Many coaches turn a blind eye and view it as harmless team fun, when in fact it is a serious issue.

    There are far better and more positive ways to build team cohesion, mutual respect and create positive relationships among athletes than hazing rituals.





    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.