Sunday, April 27, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Too Many Kids Are Pushed Too Far Too Fast -- Children's Athletic Experience Often Hurt By Adult Overseers

Newhouse News Service

SPRINGFIELD, Va. - A crisp, cold April evening cranks up the craziest time of the year for the Fitzgerald family, ushering in a nonstop whirl of practices and games, a furious flurry of start-and-stop drives to get each kid to the ballpark on time, the projected whereabouts of each family member color-coded and crosshatched in the squares of a plastic-covered calendar stuffed with league fliers and schedules.

Four boys - Scott, Sean, Patrick and Kelly. Four teams. And dad, Mike, the longtime Little League coach. Four games on Saturdays. Practice every night of the week.

"This is a baseball family," said Mike Fitzgerald, 42, a special projects manager for a bank. "The family dinner doesn't exist during baseball."

It is organized athletic madness. But it is tempered with a determination to hold a parental line against the modern day pressures that can pollute a youngster's competitive experience - no screaming coaches, no win-at-all-costs mentality, no child pushed too far too fast.

But for a growing number of other American youngsters, the athletic experience, the romanticized joys of Little League and American Legion ball, captured with all the warm and gauzy imagery of a Norman Rockwell picture, has become as dysfunctional as the American family itself.

Be it soccer, gymnastics, baseball, basketball or ice skating, more and more youngsters are getting pushed into making a full-time commitment to a single sport at an earlier and earlier age. More and more young athletes are also being committed to a strenuous training regimen that may overstress growing bodies.

Going, going and gone are the days of the three-sport varsity athlete. Today's promising youngster is pushed into becoming a specialist with the accompanying risk of early burnout. What was once the ever-younger quirk of only certain sports - like gymnastics or swimming - has become the norm for more mainstream athletic endeavors.

And long gone is the game for just the game's sake. No longer do youngsters troop down to the local park for a pickup game of basketball or baseball - too dangerous down there, the parents say. More and more, a child's only athletic experience is in a league, with adults as overbearing overseers.

"You see kids less and less in control of the games they play, less and less involved with who plays when, less and less involved with their athletic destinies," said Glenn Heinzmann, associate director of the Youth Sports Research Council at Rutgers University.

The cause of all this madness?

Nothing short of an overradiated and thoroughly American mutation of the Little League dad syndrome. Now there is the Type A, overachieving yuppie mom and dad, cell phone and Filofax at hand, anxious to force Junior and Missy into an early launch on everything in life, from academics to sports. And they are determined to use the sharp-elbowed politics of the corporate world to force their children to the front of the pack.

Even at the rec and Little League level, there is pro-style competitiveness for top talent - coaches videotape and keep scouting cards on the most promising athletes. Even if the kid is only 10, he may get an after-dinner call from the coach of an elite soccer squad, buttonholing him for a commitment to play. That's what happened to Tom Stephenson's oldest child, Kelly.

"I was dumbfounded," said Stephenson, a Dallas restaurant consultant who once played football at the University of Missouri. "On the one hand, I was flattered. On the other, I was appalled because this shouldn't have been happening so early in his life."

For the parents of kids chosen to play on the elite travel squads, there are ironclad contracts - exclusively binding their kid to that team and that sport and committing the parents to a set financial nut and a calibrated "volunteer" work load.

Instead of the game being a game for the fun of it, there is a single-minded concentration on grabbing the gold ring - be it a college scholarship, an Olympic berth, a fat pro contract or that extra something on the vitae that will gain them admission to Stanford or Dartmouth or Yale.

"We're emphasizing NOT teaching the skills, we're emphasizing NOT teaching the game or teamwork or sportsmanship," said Harvey Dulberg, a sports psychologist from Boston. "But we ARE emphasizing winning. We're pushing these kids, we're taking the fun out of sports. I'm seeing 8, 9, 10-year-old kids puking before ballgames. Migraines. Lower back pain. All stress related. These are kids who feel like they have to be flawless, the pressure is so great."

4 million hospital trips

The numbers are startling, if somewhat inconclusive. According to academics and sports psychologists, roughly 25 million American kids between ages 6 and 16 play some form of organized sports every year - from rec leagues to elite travel squads in soccer and ice hockey to varsity sports in junior and senior high school.

Of that number, roughly 4 million wind up in hospital emergency rooms for a sports-related injury and an additional 8 million are treated by family physicians for a medical problem caused by athletics, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports. One-third of all sports injuries occur in children between the ages of 5 and 14.

Comparative figures from earlier years are incomplete or unavailable, said Michelle Glassman, a spokesman for the Youth Sports Safety Foundation, so it is hard to accurately gauge whether this is a growing problem.

"What we DO know is that it's a serious problem," said Kenneth McEwin, an education professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., who has extensively studied the flaws of youth sports in America.

On the anecdotal level, pediatricians and orthopedic surgeons with a sports bent are reporting younger and younger serious athletes showing up at their offices with a full array of injuries once limited to the older athlete.

The demand is growing - enough so that some doctors, such as Steven Anderson, a Seattle pediatrician who chairs the committee on sports medicine and fitness for the American Pediatric Society, are developing an embryonic specialty, the pediatric sports surgeon.

"Patients are no longer willing to accept the recommendation that if you hurt your knee in basketball, just take the rest of the season off," said Anderson. "The more you get earlier specialization and year-round sports, the more exposure you get to injury and the more you're going to see cases of overuse and overtraining injuries and the like. There's certainly an increased awareness of the injury problem and the need to have someone specially trained, with the special knowledge necessary to address the injuries of young athletes."

Then there is the burnout rate in youth sports, said McEwin, Dulberg and other sports experts. Every year between the ages of 6 and 16, 35 percent of the kids playing sports drop out. By the late teens, almost 90 percent of the kids who started playing sports are on the sidelines.

The No. 1 reason? In survey after survey, the kids say they're turned off by sports because sports aren't any fun. Under that broad umbrella, kids lump everything from a lack of playing time to boring practices to pressure from coaches and parents to superseding social interests - like dating, peer pressure or a garage band.

Hand in hand with this lack of fun is a corresponding lack of freedom, a decline in free play. The game is no longer a game for kids - it is the hub for all manner of hopes, wishes, social frictions and adult-style competitions that have nothing to do with what goes on between the lines.

"The needs of the community, the needs of the parents and coaches, the needs of the league sponsors - all of these things are in play," said Heinzmann of Rutgers. "If you think these games are all in the name of the kids, you're missing the point."

Solutions are startlingly simple, the experts say - from leagues styled more like pickup teams to some form of required training and accreditation for coaches and an understanding of the unique physical and psychological needs of children.

"We have qualifications for everything from barbering to nursing, everything except coaching," said Judith Young, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a group pushing for national training standards for coaching. "We're the only nation in the world who doesn't require coaches to undergo some sort of training and certification."

For parents who grew up playing sports, there is a sense of loss, a mourning on behalf of their children for something they doubt their kids will ever experience in athletics.

"Joy," said John Mashburn of Adamstown, Md., a father of four and an aide to U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo. "The joy of just playing for the joy of playing, the joy of playing for the love of the game. It's all deadly serious business now."

While parents and academics fret about the fragile athletic psyche of today's youth, the youngsters themselves sometimes just want to play ball and get the adults to shut up and sit down.

Caitlin Stephenson, a 12-year-old Dallas jock who plays point guard on her father's basketball team when she isn't swimming, playing softball or kicking a soccer ball, doesn't want to settle for a single sport and thrives on the competitive fire.

"If you like 'em all, you want to play 'em all," said Stephenson, who has played soccer since she was four but is now jazzed about swimming, even though it is not her exclusive focus. "I'm definitely playing for me, not my parents. . . . I've found my sport and I'm really good at it. I want to win a scholarship. It's up to me to win it, though. My parents can't do it for me. It's up to me to accomplish something so I can give it to them."

But even a hardnosed gym rat like Stephenson, daughter of a major college football player, recognizes the tug and pull placed on young jocks.

"You're trying to make everyone happy - your parents and your coaches - and you don't know if you're making anyone happy," she said.

Mike and Sue Fitzgerald try to shield their kids from such concerns while doing all they can to give them a full-blown sporting life. They want to filter out the worst of modern American youth sports and give their four boys the cream.

"What we wanted for our kids was to let them have fun with their friends, let them play at their level so they could build their self-confidence," said Mike Fitzgerald.

This does not mean a sporting life devoid of the agony and ecstasy of defeat or victory. For Scott Fitzgerald, 17, the oldest of the Fitzgerald children, the competitive fire of sports has provided preparation for life's other competitions.

"The drive to just go out and do something, accomplish something - it helps being competitive," said Scott. "The world is competitive now, so you need that drive."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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