Column: Youth sports: the good, the bad and the ugly

Column: Youth sports: the good, the bad and the ugly
Welcome to the world of competitive youth sports where you’re never too young to start. (Photo provided by Tom Ferraro)

I’m currently reading the timely and well-researched book “Playing to Win” by Harvard sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman.

It’s based on research she did for her dissertation while at Princeton where she embedded herself in the world of competitive soccer, chess and dance, interviewed large numbers of parents, coaches and kids in order to discover why they went through all that expense and time.

If you happen to visit any sports arena at any hour on any day you will see that there are many families here in Nassau County exactly like the ones described in Dr. Levey Friedman’s book.

She concludes that the parents felt compelled to invest endless time and money in these activities in order to give their kids a leg up in life.

She rightfully posits that the current capitalistic landscape in America has seen flattened wages for decades and this has produced a harsh and competitive world that one must prepare your child for or else they will be left in the dust.

Her book is an extension of Amy Chua’s bestselling Battle Hymn of the “Tiger Mother” but written from an American sociologists viewpoint.
I think that Dr. Levey Friedman has done well in describing the intense crucible of pressure common in competitive youth sports. I also think that she fell short in two ways.

She has underestimated competitive sports inherent value and its inherent dangers as well. As a full-time depth sports psychologist I see on a daily basis both the benefits of elite youth sports and its possible damaging effects.
Doctor Levey Friedman’s treatise suggests that the benefits that the parent is hoping their child will obtain include: 1. internalizing the importance of winning 2. resilience 3. working under time pressure 4. coping with stress and 5. performing in front of others.

These are just a few of the benefits that accrue to the young elite athlete. One of my young patients is a world-class dancer and I remarked how mature and self-possessed she seemed.

She quickly responded, “Well I’ve been dancing since I was four and I quickly learned that one must ignore pain and never show tears, fears or weakness.”

This is a perfect example of the paradoxical nature of stardom. One does indeed benefit in many ways but one learns how to suffer gracefully.
But learning how to win, being disciplined, focused, resilient and strong just touch the surface of competitive sports. When I go any studio, gym or rink the parents who are sitting on the sidelines will always tell me that the reason they support the kid’s sport or dancing is essential because the child enjoys it.

In fact, I have never once in all my years of practice heard one child tell me that they want to stop their sport. Or that they feel forced into it.

They may be suffering from anxiety, pain or sadness but the compelling joy, thrill and excitement of elite sports always override the pain.
In addition, parents tell me that the sport keeps their child out of trouble and allows them to make new friends. But elite sports offer far more than this as well.

I have seen that every athlete I work with has gained enormous self-pride and the admiration of their peers. In addition, I have seen young athletes get to see the world whereas if they did not play sports they would be as community bound as their peers.

Elite athletes first begin to see America by traveling to our greatest cities like Philadelphia Penn., Houston Texas, Orlando Fla., Chicago Ill., or San Diego, Calif.

And when they achieve greater heights they travel to Paris, London, Seoul, Sydney or Rome. They become truly cosmopolitan citizens of the world. And you only earn that credential by becoming elite in soccer or golf or taekwondo or some other sport.
But as I remarked above Dr. Levey Friedman also may have underestimated the level of pain that the truly elite athlete must be prepared for.

She discusses the gamesmanship that the young chess players in her study must endure. Yes, indeed things like sabotage, gamesmanship and jealousy expressed by parents do occur.

I wished the doctor had called me up before she wrote her book. I could have shared with her the following tidbits that await the elite in any sport.

My two favorite stories come from the world of soccer and swimming. One of my patients grew to be No. 3 in the world in soccer but when she was a 10-year-old girl she was already being recognized as a future star and would regularly dominate games in youth soccer.

One day following a game where she scored numerous goals she walked off the field and a parent from the opposing team came up to her and kicked her in the stomach.

Or how about another patient of mine who was a world-class distance swimmer. When he was just coming up the ranks he was in a big race in Florida against a field with some of his heroes competing.

It was an ocean race and as he approached the lead his two heroes were up ahead setting the pace and he decided to swim up between them so they could all swim together. As he came up between them they both elbowed him in the face. Welcome to the big leagues kid.
I could go on but I think you get my drift.

Youth sports has transformed itself over the years into something far, far beyond the sandlot little league games of my youth.

And it has arrived at a place which regularly offers up both glory and pain. I congratulate Dr. Levey Friedman for having the guts to plunge into this crazy, wonderful, wild, painful, glorious world of competitive youth sports.

And don’t forget to wear your mouth guard.

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  1. Thank you so much for reading Playing to Win, and writing about it!

    It’s true that the families I studied do not have children at the elite level (with one exception in chess). I’m usually very clear about this when I give talks to parent groups, but it clearly is not as clear as it could be in the book.

    Definitely the families in Playing to Win are right of center when it comes to competition, because the kids are playing a step or two beyond the recreational level, but they don’t approach elite levels (both in terms of children’s abilities and the family’s commitment). It’s true that the highest level can be instructive– and at times simultaneously horrifying and entertaining– but I was trying to focus on more modal experiences of American upper-middle and middle class families.

    And I hope whoever kicked your patient in the stomach had some (legal) repercussions as well!


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