Sunday, August 26, 2018

Don't Turn Childhood Into A Race

Picture by RS from Flickr
I didn't expect my article on not to force your teenage athletes to be so well received. I received many requests to share the article and comments from readers and patients alike.

And in the clinic, there were patients who asked me about that article. Turns out one of those conversations became the inspiration for this week's post.

One of my patients had been deciding whether or not to go for football practice. Not her or her husband but their two boys. The commitment required though makes it seem like the whole family is involved. Even their helper helps to pitch in by making sandwiches and sports drinks (although I thought they were a little young for sports drinks).

The twice weekly practices, requiring a 30 minute drive one way ends quite late on a week day leaving just enough time for dinner and bedtime (but not homework). The Saturday or Sunday practice often conflict with family lunches, birthday parties and family time for just lazing or goofing around at home.

Their boys are only six and eight and I feel they shouldn't be on such a "rigid" supervised program for sports (but that's just my opinion).

I've read from articles in Red Sports and the Straits Times that increasingly for children in Singapore, kids start playing organized team sports younger. They are often encouraged to specialize in a single sport sooner than later. Especially those kids who are hoping to enroll in a school of their choice under the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme.

This creates pressure for kids to be proficient and exceptional only at one sport. When I was in primary school, I played table tennis, football, basketball, badminton and also competed in the running events during my school sports day and won medals for all of them.

Now, I'm not disputing the fact that sports are very good for kids. When kids take part in sports, it teaches them teamwork, sportsmanship, improves their self esteem while letting them try risk taking (safely). And of course it makes them healthy and strong. Both physically and mentally.

I, for one have seen first hand (while treating these young athletes) that these children/ teenagers who focus too early on a single sport lose interest when the going gets tough. They're often more prone to injury, stress and burnout.They sometimes fail to develop basic movement skills. Just watch a bunch of young elite swimmers (no disrespect intended) play basketball or football.

In today's Straits Times, in an article on why we should not turn childhood into a race for results, the author wrote about how US Olympian Katie Ledecky describe swimming as "really just for her still a hobby". She has by the age of 21 won five Olympic gold medals and a silver, owns six world records and a US$7 million dollar deal with a swimwear company.

She was quoted in a New York Times article saying "I feel lucky that I could enjoy swimming," and "people need to relax ... and take a step back and realize that you don't have to be great at this young age. It's not about immediate results". Ledecky said she recalled she had not raced in events longer than 25 yards (22.9 metres) until she was eight years old.

My observations mirror those of studies published. Kids who wait until their older teenage years to specialize are better all round athletes and more likely to stick with sports and continue to be active throughout their life.

So what's the solution? Try to do everything in moderation. If your child is keen on a single sport, try mixing other activities on their off days. Make sure they have off (or total rest) days.

My own two boys do lots of outdoor free play- climbing, jumping and running around in the playground nearby. Other than football once a week for the older boy (at his request) there are no other art, music or other enrichment activities for both of them.

I suggest that your child should not be involved in more hours of organized sports than their age. Expose them to as many different options as possible while waiting as long as you can to find a sport for them to specialize. Then you can support them as much as possible.

We also value adventure in our family. My wife and I hope that our boys will be competent and enthusiastic outdoors. So we try to make sure they're climbing, hiking, going for nature walks and biking. Travelling and farm stays (which the boys love) will remain an essential time for our family and this keeps us connected and is a welcome change to our over scheduled wired and connected world.

Competitions? Do your best to keep them in perspective. Your goal as a parent is not to raise an Olympic athlete but to raise a nice child that grows into a nicer, well balanced human being who will contribute to society.

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