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.





Oh ESPN The Magazine…You Never Cease to Amaze Me.

19 11 2010

I’ve written previously about portrayals of female athletes  in sport media (here & here) and particularly on the pattern of female athletes on the covers of ESPN The Magazine. and Sports Illustrated.

Yesterday a colleague forwarded me the new cover of ESPN The Magazine “the movie issue” as she thought I’d like to see it. On the cover appeared to be a Sharon Stone look alike from the famous interview scene in Basic Instinct. I thought it strange ESPN would have a movie issue, and didn’t really realize it was Olympic medalist Lindsey Vonn until today! At the risk of asking for more criticism and being hung out to dry by those who will disagree when I write about Lindsey Vonn, I have to address (again) why this cover is just plain problematic. To see video of Vonn’s shoot and why she decided to do the piece, click here.

Reason 1: Females athletes are under represented in the media. Less than 5% of all sport media is dedicated to female athletes. A new report states that number is generous as coverage of females athletes on major networks has declined to an all time low of 1.6%!!!

Reason 2: When female athletes are given media coverage it is usually in ways that highlight their sexuality, rather than athletic competence. (latest ESPN cover as Exhibit A, B, C, D,…..). ESPN The Magazine is the worst culprit of this pattern. In five years (2004- March 2009) females athletes have appeared on 5 of 168 ESPN covers (3.6%…less than the average) and when they do….well see for yourself.

I joke in class with my students that whenever female athletes are on the cover of ESPN they are in white (except for Danica Patrick because she is usually always in black for some reason as part of the media’s construction of her as a badass, sexy vixen…even when she’s “refueling” and promoting Got Milk?). White in U.S. culture connotes purity, chastity, cleanliness, and innocence but when coupled with sexy images of female athletes it has a much different meaning I’m still trying to figure out. This pattern is not coincidental and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Reason 3: When female athletes are consistently portrayed like sexy vixens it become increasingly difficult for most everyone to take them seriously AS ATHLETES. This does little to promote women’s sports.

Reason 4: It sends the wrong message to girls and young women, and heck any female!, that it is more important what your body looks like and how it can be used and gazed upon as a sexual object, than what your body can do athletically. An entire body of literature provides many reasons why the continual sexualization of females is harmful to girls.

This ESPN cover and the countless other images are not proof of female enlightenment, it is as Susan J. Douglas argues in her book it is unfortunately an example of how far we have to go until females are free of sexist practices packaged as post feminist empowerment that undermines female achievement and serves to keep women a sexualized objects, rather than promote them as equal members of society.





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.





    2 Important Firsts in Sport for Marginalized Groups

    12 11 2010

    1. Afghanistan is poised to get their first national women’s team. The sport will be cricket and the Afghanistan Cricket Board feels cricket will allow the women to play a sport but remain consistent with Islamic tradition and values. To read more about the team click here.

    2. This weekend a historic basketball game will be played here at the University of Minnesota’s Best Buy Classic. Kye Allums will be the first transgender athlete to play a NCAA D-I basketball game. He is a Minnesota native and I think it quite fitting he play this historic game in his home state. In light of the new report released a few weeks ago on transgender athletes, perhaps Allums courageous will help forward dialogue and policy. To read the original article on OutSports.com that broke the story click here.