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Our goal is to lift, not push, young athletes

I watched ESPN's ESPY Awards Sunday night and heard a common refrain among many of the award winners.

They thanked their parents.

Few athletes can say they reached the pinnacle of their sport without the support of their moms and dads, or in some cases, a single parent. A lot of that gratitude stems from some basics: providing rides to practice, showing up and cheering at games and buying that pair of cleats or running shoes.

Yet some of those kids thank their parents because they pushed them to be the best.

Chelle Stack competed in the 1988 Olympics, but not before her mother convinced her to keep going even though she felt like quitting months before the biggest competition of her life.

"You hear, 'Her parents made her do it,' " Stack said. "Well I

hope they did. I can't make adult decisions when I'm 13 years old. That's what our parents are there to do.

"You have to trust your parents are going to be the ones that say, 'You have a talent, you can be good, we're going to make sure you're given the best opportunities.' "

Stack not only went on to the Olympics, but she earned a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma and now has a career in the sport, operating two gymnastics schools including one at the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center.

On the other end of the spectrum are moms and dads who insist sports remain fun and rewarding diversions that focus on those intangibles that can help you in life: teamwork, cooperation, dealing with adversity and pursuing excellence.

In his new book Uncommon, former Bucs and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy writes that he worries about such values getting de-emphasized by today's parents.

"Growing up, I played a lot of sports because I liked to. They were fun," Dungy wrote. "Unfortunately, most kids today don't get to have fun like that with their youth sports.

"They're being coached and pushed like adults, with the idea they have to be the best player on their team so they can go to 'the next level.' "

I don't think Dungy is right and Stack is wrong. They both make valid points. Dungy recognizes how much he benefited from beating the odds to become an NFL player. Stack certainly believes in sports' intangible values and credits them for her current success.

So the question becomes what's the proper balance? How hard do we push, and when can it become too much?

One thing for sure is that there can be a breaking point. A study by Michigan State's Institute For The Study of Youth Sports indicates 70 percent of the nation's youth quit organized sports by the time they turn 13, many because of the pressure brought to bear by parents and coaches.

Greg Dale, the director of sports psychology and leadership programs for Duke athletics, said parents shouldn't push their children to play a sport in which they have no interest. He also worries about the budding trend of specialization, where kids play a single sport year-round.

"Too many people are buying into pushing their kids to specialize," said Dale, who won't allow his own 11-year-old son to exclusively play baseball. "They see other kids doing it and think that's the only way they can get their kids to compete. That is a myth. It is not true.

"I think when (my son) is in high school he'll be just as good as the kids who played year-round and less likely to be burned out or injured."

However, parents have to assert some authority. For example, only in extreme cases should a child be allowed to quit in the middle of a season. Kids have to honor the commitment they make to their coach and their teammates. Skipping practice, unless they're injured, is another no-no.

Really, that's where the focus belongs: setting goals for a particular season and then fulfilling that pledge. The goals can be simple: show up for practice, play hard, have fun. The problem comes when the parents' desires begin to outweigh the child's daily enjoyment.

"Parents are investing more time and money in their kids' sports than we've ever done before," Dale explained. "So many are looking (for) a return on that investment and thinking about that future. As parents, we have to think about what's best for our kids and not what's best for them to get that college scholarship."

I believe if the emphasis is placed on sports' best values and an all-around approach that doesn't eschew academics, the youth will achieve some milestones, possibly a college or pro career or more hopefully a successful business career.

Remember this: If your child is fortunate enough to step up to that podium for an award-winning moment, you want it to be because of your efforts, not despite them.

That's all I'm saying.

Our goal is to lift, not push, young athletes 07/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:41pm]
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