Participating in youth sports can be a deep passion for families, but it also appears to be taking a toll on young athletes. Parents, if you've played chauffeur, calendar coordinator and cheerleading squad for your kids, you know how taxing their athletic commitments can be.
Why are kids dropping out of youth sports by the time they hit high school?
"The majority of the kids are dropping out because sports is not fun," said Brooke De Lench, founder of MomsTeam.com, producer/director of the new documentary "The Smartest Team: Making High School Sports Safer" and author of "The Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports." "The statistics we have show the age slipping down to 11 as the median age for kids to drop out."
How to juggle family life and youth sports? What to do with sports-obsessed kids this summer? Is there a trick to keeping them from burning out? De Lench offered some tips in our Spreecast on Friday. You can listen to our chat or read this recap of highlights from our conversation:
Why are kids dropping out?
There are too many demands on them. Kids are just overwhelmed. You have to make sure that their life is balanced with your life as a parent. The happiest families are the ones where the balance is working out really well and no time is being overloaded to one child too much. Some of these kids who are being asked to do too much are the ones who are burning out and won’t go out for the high school team.
Is sports specialization dangerous for young children?
The earlier kids begin a sport, the earlier they are going to burn out. Sometimes they even get pushed out. The kids who are waiting longer are the ones who come to a sport very passionate about it. They are ready to play.
Does repetitive stress influence burnout?
We do know that certain joints and body parts need a break. That kids who are doing a lot of pitching are setting themselves up for serious injuries. Burnout is fatigue and being tired of doing the same repetitive activity over and over. Many factors come into play. We need to look at the coaches. Are they demanding too much of these kids? Are there too many games? Are they psychologically fatigued? They are setting themselves up for injury because they are tiring themselves out. Accidents happen when their heads are not in the game.
How can parents balance family life with sports activities?
It's amazing how much pressure parents are under. But this is all in your control. You are in charge of your checkbook. You don’t have to sign on.
There is always a place for a good player with a lot of heart who wants to be there. Much more important at a younger age is letting children play with their friends. If kids play up [an older age group], you want to start asking serious questions. Who are the kids? Is the team traveling to a different area where the child may be bullied? Is your kid being recruited to a summer camp because there are not enough kids who can afford it? Youth sports is a big business. It's up to the moms and dads and grandparents who are writing these checks to understand what’s going on. Are you watching out for the balance, or are you caught in this crazy vortex? It feels so good to just say no. Say 'No, my child is staying home for the summer and I'm going to take that $1,000 and buy a canoe. Or a kayak.' Buy something that you can use as a family over and over again. Enough is enough.
Summer is a popular time for sports camps. How can parents gauge what is appropriate for their child?
Over the summer, look at a camp that is not hyper-focused on one sport but one that will give your child a chance to hike, canoe, kayak. Those camps are a better bet for a child. Limit the specialized camps and try to give them a varied menu of activities over the summer. This is the time of year when kids are already burned out. But I also worry about the moms and dads. It's a significant amount of work. Children take cues from their parents. If the parent is overwhelmed or exhausted, kids will think 'I'm not sure this whole sports thing is good for me.'The most important thing parents can do over the summer? Swim lessons. Swimming is the only sports activity that our children need to survive.
How can parents set limits?
We're not talking about kids in elite sports, we're talking about a broad spectrum of kids. You're the one who is going to define what they are going to do. One of the most powerful things for them to understand is family finances. Even if you have to take the cash and put it out on the table and start piling up the money. I don’t think kids can comprehend it until they see a visual of what it is doing to a family. Now is a good time to be thinking about fall sports for 2013. Start with a calendar. Think about the entire life cycle of your child. What will their bodies look like when they are 30, 40 or 50? How many of these players will get to 50 and need new knees and shoulders? How many players are still playing their sport? We are the guardians of children at play. We need to think about it more holistically. What do we want our kids to remember?
What are the warning signs that your child is burning out?
They are going to start complaining about an ankle injury. Or a knee injury. That's the No. 1 sign. Or not hustling or putting their gear bag together ahead of time. The passionate kids are the ones who are scrambling to get their bag ready because they are really eager. When they are not eager, they are losing things and putting it off to the last minute.
When is it OK for a child to quit?
Is it because they are being asked to play too many games or too many practices after a very long school day? The coach may be asking the kids to play when they are exhausted. These kids need nine hours of sleep a night.
Their bodies need it so they don’t burn out from everything. We have to determine why is it they are asking to quit? Is it because they are burned out and overscheduled? Is it because a coach is harassing them? This is a very serious problem – how a coach treats a child. It’s important to identify red flags. Are they being pushed out? Harassed out? Bullied out?
How to empower our kids to speak up about concussions?
I spent an entire year with a team in Oklahoma and worked very closely with the parents and the kids. The boys are in a warrior mentality and culture. They fear that the coaches and other kids are going to harass them and bully them if they speak up about concussions. They will tell you they do not want the responsibility for telling the coach they have a concussion. They want the adults to come to them and tell them, "You have a concussion." How do we get our kids to understand? There are kids who have died from playing with a concussion that has not healed. We hear from parents of kids who had a concussion and go back in too soon and have a second impact concussion that will result in a child being permanently disabled. Or dead. One of the best indicators are their eyes. Are they wandering? Are they blurring? Can they focus? It's a window to everything. Know what the signs and behaviors are. Be able to show them.
How to handle burnout when it happens:
If a child has said "enough," take a look at other things – ultimate Frisbee, fencing, rowing and crew – sports the kids will be playing into their adult life. Find something they like. My son was a phenomenal lacrosse player and now he is a nationally recognized rock climber. He loves it. I think we have to search for things that our kids absolutely love.
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