Leveling the playing field gets harder every year

By May 11, 2011

Sometimes I think of a column topic that almost could write itself — meaning I have well-formed thoughts and opinions about the subject, so all I have to do is sit and type.

This isn’t one of those topics.

Alas, the subject of kids and sports is one on which I have a million opinions, and organizing them into a logical, flowing story is hopeless. Instead, here’s a trip through my cluttered thought process.

I’m of the mind that team sports are very useful for children. Besides creating a habit of regular exercise, sports teach kids how to win and lose. Stress and depression are lessened, and studies show youths are less likely to take drugs, use alcohol or smoke. It’s hard to argue with those benefits.

Sports also offer a lot of fun. Hanging out with teammates at practices and cheering for/being cheered for by your friends is a good time.

(Seems like I’m heading toward a “but…” doesn’t it?)

But … I recently watched an episode of PBS’ “Frontline” called “Football High” which aired in April. One of the main points of the documentary, which followed some high school football teams in Arkansas, was about concussions and brain damage. It was a frightening look at head trauma in children.

The point that I couldn’t shake after viewing the show, however, relates to the death of one child and hospitalization of another due to heat stroke (from the show’s transcripts, a great service PBS provides):

Narrator: The two players had both passed out on the field after practicing in the blistering August heat.

Eric Capp, Ozark High School assistant coach: We had almost a three-week span where it was over 100 degrees every day, so you do try to take extra caution. It does make you think a little bit when it’s that hot outside.

Interviewer: But you still practice?

Eric Capp: Oh, you have to practice. You know, have to practice to be ready for the season to start. So yeah, we don’t — we don’t cancel practice because of the heat.

You “have to” practice? “Have to?!” Why do you have to? Because the other teams are practicing.

Remember what I said earlier about hanging out with your teammates at practice being a good time? I’m thinking these 100-degree, heat-stroke-inducing practices don’t offer much in the way of fun.

B.J. Maack of the Arkansas Athletic Trainers’ Association admits that “keeping up with the Joneses” is a prime motivator in athletics, which — getting back to my muddled feelings — could not be less of a motivator for me.

In a similar vein, ESPN.com columnist Gregg Easterbrook said on “Frontline,” “As recently as 20 years ago, it was pretty rare to find a high school offensive lineman who weighed more than 220, maybe 230. Now a lot of high schools, all their starting offensive linemen weigh more than 300 pounds.”

“Frontline” went on to say that the high school football teams they followed train 12 months a year. There is no off-season for these kids. And they all work out with weights now, which helps them reach the “rare” sizes of 300 pounds.

My husband often says, regarding his college baseball career in the 1980s, that if coaches had known players could seriously increase their strength by lifting weights, he would have been a much better ballplayer. But would he have had as much fun if the game — game! — involved 12 months of training and the intensity of military boot camp?

My younger son plays soccer nine months out of the year, which I’m not sure isn’t overkill, plus he also plays Little League. My husband and I constantly evaluate if this is the right thing for an 11-year-old child. We want him to have fun with sports, and all that they offer.

But will he burn out at a young age? And what about the increase in sports-related injuries because kids are overdoing?

Still, you can’t play “at the next level” — a regularly moving target — if you don’t play more competitively and practice all year long. Heck, you can’t even really enjoy the sport if you are consistently the worst player on the team because you don’t attend special camps, clinics and sessions with private coaches. See what I mean about my cluttered thought process?

The movie “The Race to Nowhere” was all the rage in Davis last year as parents thoughtfully considered the toll so much pressure to excel was placing on their kids. But I don’t think we’re practicing what we preach, in part because we’re still keeping up with the Joneses.

I wish that Jones family would move.

— Tanya Perez is an associate editor at The Enterprise. Her column runs every other Thursday. Reach her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/enterprisetanya

Tanya Perez

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