A Psychiatrist Examines Children & Sports
Seventy percent of all children drop out of organized youth sports between the ages of 8 and 13. Over the past 25 years, such a statistic has led youth sport experts to conclude that adult-organized youth sports, as they have come to exist, are not adequately serving the needs of our children.
Interestingly enough, though Little League is often regarded as the prototype for adult involvement in youth athletics, two New York City educators were really the first to take a crack at it. The educators believed, in 1903, that the New York City elementary school curriculum should include organized sports for boys. Teachers, acting as coaches, supervised their young charges as they played sports, and this model spread to most US schools over the next 30 years. In the 1930’s, however, educators became alarmed at the emphasis on winning that they observed in these programs, and at the physical and emotional strains that championship play seemed to put on the children. In the early 1940’s, seeing the same patterns, physicians joined educators in their concerns. Both the American Medical Association and The American Academy of Pediatrics came out against “highly organized competition of a varsity pattern for children of elementary and junior high school age”, and educator-run sports programs for children began to disappear, leaving a vacuum that would soon be filled.
Carl Stotz, an oil company clerk from Williamsport, PA, unwittingly changed youth sports forever when, in 1939, he plopped adults, and a miniaturized version of major league baseball, on a backyard game that had been played in splendid isolation by children for many years.
Stotz’s intentions were good. He had originally conceived the idea when, as a boy, he was playing right field and felt bored because his teammates were arguing incessantly about whether a runner was safe or out. Young Stotz daydreamed of growing up and organizing a team with adult supervision, where such bickering could not occur.
Years later, when his two nephews came to him dejected over not being allowed to play with a group of older boys, Stotz had a flashback to that day in right field. He excitedly began describing his idea to the boys.
They were wide-eyed and enthusiastic as their uncle described how he intended to outfit them in real uniforms and, using brand-new balls and scaled–down bats, give them regulation fields to play on and teams to play against. They asked Uncle Carl if he thought people would actually come watch them play, and whether there would be a band, like the Williamsport Grays had at their games.
From that grand and innocent notion, we have come down to the tennis dads and swimming moms who become so involved in their children’s athletic lives that they take the fun out of youth sports.
As coaches and parents, umpires and league officials, adults are nothing if not teachers. Yet, while the dedication of many adults in youth sports is worthy of high praise, most coaches and officials get little training in child development and psychology and are not responsive enough to the individual differences among kids. More Parent-Training classes, and the filling out of pre-season check lists by the whole family would be a good start, as the two most common reasons that kids give for dropping out of youth sports are abusive coaching practices and excessive parental pressure.
From a sport psychiatrist’s perspective, it seems that adults often forget that we are really only Carl Stotz’s “invited hosts” in children’s play. Hosts have responsibilities, and one of the primary ones is to try to make the sport experience a positive and fun one for each child involved, showing respect for the individuals that they are and for the ones we hope them to be.#
Ronald L. Kamm, MD, is Director of Sports Psychiatry Associates in Oakhurst, NJ and immediate-Past President of the International Society for Sport Psychiatry. http://www.mindbodyandsports.com