Suit Up for Sports

We love to share articles with yall – this one we found to be particularly interesting. It’s from the “Life with Teens: The Magazine for Parents with Teens”, spring 2013 edition, published by TeenLife. This issue had an interesting article about sports and adolescents, written by Randi Mazzella.

“Sneakers, cleats, shin guards, and basketballs are strewn across our family home at all times. Between my three children (two teen girls and one 9 year old boy), they play more than five sports on eight different teams. Our weekday afternoons and family weekends are devoted to sports, and we are not alone. According to a 2011 study by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), over 50 percent of kids ages 11-17 play at least one team sport.

gymnasticsWhy play sports?

When my kids were small, I got them involved in sports as a way for them to meet other kids in our neighborhood, have fun, and of course, burn off some energy. As they got older, they continued in sports for many of the same reasons. Sports are fun- and a wonderful way to get your child out of the house, off the computer, and moving to stay fit. And depending on the sport, teens get a cardiovascular workout, build muscle, and develop their hand-eye coordination. Many of the athletic skills teens learn while playing a sport will help them lead healthier, more active lives as adults.

Of course, there are plenty of other benefits, too. Team sports provide the opportunity for teens to socialize with their peers while working together toward a common goal. By playing with a team, teens meet other teens who share their passion. Mac Greenblatt, a high school senior, has played soccer since he was in preschool and just recently committed to playing soccer for Northeastern University in the fall. Marc’s mother, Mia, says, “Marc has made some of his best friends on the soccer field.”

Although the physical and social aspects of participating in sports are quite obvious,w hat you and your teen might not have truly thought about is how sports apply to life beyond high school. A tremendous number of life lessons can be acquired long after the final whistle blows.

Chris Stankovich, professional athletic counselor and founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems,  remarks, “There are skills that athletes learn while competing that can be transferred to other aspects of their life. These ‘athletic transferable skills’ include learning how to set goals and achieve them, how to win gracefully, how to lose and come back from failure, and how to work as a member of a team. Most teen athletes don’t even realize the invaluable lessons they are learning through playing sports.”

Tara Cousineau, clinical psychologist and founder of the website, also adds, “Sports help teens build confidence. It has been documented that girls who participate in sports have higher self-esteem. Competitive sports require focus and commitment, and with less free unaccounted time, teens are more productive in other areas of their life.” Mia Greenblatt echoes these sentiments, adding, “Playing soccer kept Marc extremely busy, but it has also made him more organized as a student.”

Choosing A Sport

Teens can participate in a wide variety of sports, from popular sports, such as soccer and basketball, to lesser known but equally challenging sports, such as fencing and archery. A plethora of activities, from which your teen may choose, exists.

Deciding which sport to play is a matter of matching preference, personality, and ability. For some teens, team sports such as baseball and lacrosse, are a good match. Others may prefer more individualized sports, such as tennis or swimming, where they compete independently but still have the camaraderie within a team. Depending on the sport and desired degree of competition, teens may choose to play for their local high school team or for elite clubs or private leagues.

For some kids, picking a sport is easy. Marc’s natural gift for soccer was evident from the moment he got on the field at age five. His skills continued to improve as he got older, and even though he played a few other sports, his love of soccer never waned.

For others, finding the right sport can be more of a challenge. My oldest daughter, Allie, played recreational soccer for many years and then joined the freshman team in high school. Her high school is quite large, so being a team member allowed Allie to play a role in the student body. Unfortunately, when she was a sophomore, she was cut from the team. While she did not have the talent or desire to play soccer at a college level, she was devastated to lose that sense of belonging and the opportunity to compete. Several months later, she joined the track team and found this sport to be a much better match for her. Now a senior, she is a team captain and will be earning a varsity letter later this season. Allie says, “I love track, because I get to set individual goals for myself rather than being reliant on how others perform – but I still get to feel part of a team and spend time with my friends, too.”

For teens who don’t feel competitive sports are for them at all, there are still other ways for them to reap some of the benefits of sports. Cousineau says, “It’s important for teens to recognize that there are many outlets for physical activity beyond competing on a sports team. Teens can work out at a local gym or YMCA, take dance or karate classes, ride their bike, or walk their dog for 30 minutes a day. These types of basic physical activity will rev up the heart, boost mood, and build confidence over time.”

teen athletes

Risk and Pressure of Sports

Participating in sports for teens is certainly a win-win situation, but there are potential risks. The pressure of sports specialization, injury, and the use of performance-enhancing drugs are all very real today. One concern is the prominence of early sports specialization, playing one sport all year. Young athletes specializing in one sport and playing on multiple travel teams and elite leagues are truthfully becoming the norm. Dave Galehouse, a former college athlete and creator of the website explains, “Years ago, kids played soccer or football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring – and summer was for golf. Now kids feel they need to specialize in one sport in order to increase their recruiting chances.”

While specializing in a sport in high school might make sense, early specialization has led many young athletes to sports “burnout”. It is estimated that by age 14, over 70% of kids drop out of youth sports, naming “adults, coaches, and parents” as their top reasons. In addition, by playing and training in one sport year round, young athletes (middle school and below) are at a higher risk for “overuse injuries” caused by the wear and tear of repetitive athletic motion (such as throwing a baseball).

Along with early specialization, extreme competitiveness is also changing the culture of youth sports in recent years. As much as we, myself included at times, might not like to admit it, parents and coaches are overemphasizing winning and “being the best” rather than having fun and staying safe. Teen athletes are training harder and longer, leading to more injuries, including an alarming rise in the number of reported concussions according to our article on page 20. Athletes may be encouraged by their teammates, coaches, and even parents to ‘push through the pain’. Cousineau says, “Teens need to take a break and let their body rest and recover, but the current environment makes this difficult.”

Stankovich reminds us, “Sometimes teens feel like they can’t be honest with their parents. The parents expectations of the child are too high and the child is afraid of upsetting or disappointing the parents. In turn, the teen can get hurt physically, because their head isn’t in the game, and/or emotionally.”

The pressure to stay competitive may also lead some teen athletes to take performance-enhancing drugs and supplements. These substances are used for a variety of reasons, including to dull pain, build muscle mass, increase stamina, and reduce weight. While some performance enhancing drugs, such as steroids, are banned and known to cause severe side effects, other substances, such as creatine, are available over the counter; you and your teen may assume that the latter are harmless because they are “natural”, legal, and available with out a prescription, but there has been little research done on the possible long-term side effects on teems.

Playing Sports in College

Many teens dream of playing at the college level or perhaps even receiving an athletic scholarship to pay for school; however, it is estimated that only 5-7 percent of high school athletes go on to play in college and that less than 2 percent receive athletic scholarships to compete. As far as an athletic scholarship goes, families must be realistic. Unfortunately, just because your child has enjoyed athletic success in high school doesn’t mean he or she has the skills necessary to play at the college level. Galehouse suggests families of teens that want to play college sports explore the options available at all levels of play, not just the top ten well-known schools. There are plenty of opportunities to join a team at a Division II or Division III school, and almost all colleges have recreational programs at all levels. Don’t forget that there is always the opportunity for your sports tar to “walk on” and try out for the big-name team!

Mia Greenblatt affirms, “Marc was fortunate to receive a partial athletic scholarship, but our goal as parents was to help Marc achieve his dream of continuing to play soccer. The fact that he is playing Division I and receiving scholarship money is a nice surprise, but we never thought of his soccer playing as the way to pay for his education.” Galehouse also mentions that many families assume that high school coaches are responsible for a teen athlete’s recruiting process. Although high school coaches can be helpful , it is ultimately the family’s responsibility to research and evaluate schools, contact college coaches, and make decisions along the way.

soccerWhat role should parents and coaches play in teen sports?

With a healthy attitude and proper guidance, parents and coaches can help teen athletes not only enjoy the benefits of sports but also minimize potential risks. Again, I know firsthand that it is sometimes easy to get carried away at a game, but don’t forget, our role as parents is merely to support our children on the field. Cheer for your athlete in a positive and respectful manner. Be encouraging. Emphasize fun and effort, not results and and winning – and no coaching from the sidelines.

Help your teen set attainable goals toward which to work. Stankovich remarks, “Your child can’t control how fast the other simmers at a meet swim, but he can strive to improve his own time. That may not mean he will win the race and that is okay.” Keep communication open. Check in with your teen to ensure they are still enjoying the sport. Ask open ended questions rather than just inquiring about the score of the game. Of course, discourage them from quitting mid season, but allow them to express concerns and feel comfortable voicing their doubts about continuing to play a sport once the season is over. My own daughter took a season off from track when she felt particularly overwhelmed with schoolwork and needed a break – perfectly acceptable!

Encourage your teen to explore interests in addition to sports. While being an athlete can help build self-esteem, it is important for teens to define themselves by a wider lens. Stankovich adds, “Single definition athletic identity is a concern. A teen that derives all of his or her self-worth from a sport can be devastated if he has to give up that sport -either because he got cut from a team or injured.” A teen that defines himself in several ways, rather than exclusively as an athlete, will ultimately be a happier person.

US recent news in professional sports not only to show how the hard work and dedication of some elite athletes, such as Aly Raisman, are truly inspiring and pay off. But also to show how the Lance Armstrong and Roger Clemens stories illustrate that using banned drugs is not the way to succeed.

Get to know your child’s coach; however, resist the urge to approach the bench on your teen’s behalf unless it is a safety matter. Good coaches will not only foster team spirit and advance athletic abilities, but will also inspire your teen to play to potential and to grow personally without too much parental involvement. Teens should feel comfortable talking to their coach when problems occur. It is just basic parenting to make sure your teen plays his or her best and avoids injury with plenty of sleep, balanced meals, and sports free days so his or her body can rest. Also, promote balance between sports and non-sports activities and model healthy behaviors. The best reason for your teen to play a sport is because it is fun. If he or she enjoys the game, you will, too.”

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