Wednesday, February 15, 2012

With Sports and Children, Timing is Everything

“Can you please address the rationale for delaying participation in team sports until the children are … older? Why not when they are five?”

For the sake of full disclosure, let me say at the outset that I am one of those individuals who spends an inordinate amount of time paying attention to sports. In fact, reading about sports has always been my escape and one of the more reliable forms of relaxation for me. When I feel guilty about this, I reassure myself that these are good writers with whom I spend my time, authors like Donald Hall (a former poet laureate) and historians like the late David Halberstam and Doris Kearns Goodwin. One of the baseball writers that I have always enjoyed is Roger Angell, the former cinema critic and fiction editor for the New Yorker (and E.B. White’s stepson). Years ago, I read a passage in Angell’s book, The Summer Game, that stayed with me. Paraphrasing William Wordsworth, he wrote: “Sports are too much with us. Late and soon, sitting and watching – mostly watching on television – we lay waste our powers.” And I would add Wordsworth’s words: “Little do we see in nature that is ours. We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.”

I worry that sports is too much with us and that for many children this connection starts too soon. I understand that sometimes it is simply unavoidable. Older siblings set an example that compellingly invites imitation. Watching older brothers play baseball was unavoidable in our home, so our daughter was destined to show an early and avid interest in sports. It was not surprising that she became a catcher for her baseball and softball teams, the sports editor for her college magazine, and now the assistant coach for high school basketball where she teaches. It always seemed like it was meant to be. But as someone who appreciates sports and who has learned important lessons from sports, I have come to respect the adage that “timing is everything.”  This leads me to the question: “When should a child begin playing organized sports?”

My quick and simple answer is somewhere around the nine-year change, a time when children are naturally ready to step out into the larger world. Earlier than that, it is certainly okay for six, seven, and eight year olds to play sports and to play at sports, but less formally. There is a magical and delightful world of sports waiting for children in the safe and familiar confines of their own back or front yard. For generations games have taken place on asymmetrical fields with children from the neighborhood, games where the children could make up their own rules. Downspouts have served as foul poles, trees have been used as home plate, and patches of grass have been worn away to make a pitcher’s mound. Games started early and often went until it was too dark to see and dinner was just a few feet away.

The beauty of this kind of activity is that it is imaginative and heartfelt. If we were able to eavesdrop, we would hear the children announcing their own games, pretending to be their favorite player, taking the last shot at the buzzer, throwing the winning pass, or hitting the walk-off homerun. An organized team cannot offer this fantasy-rich world to a young child. Yet, this is the world of sports that children have always loved.

For the parents who choose to allow their children to live in this imaginative sports world, the question might arise: “Do I diminish my child’s ability (and their chances to succeed) by delaying their participation in organized sports?” I don’t believe this is the case. My second son didn’t play organized baseball until he turned ten and yet he excelled at every level and ended up hitting a homerun in the NCAA Regional Finals that helped his college team go to the Division III World Series. This has also been borne out by the soccer great, Pele, who felt that dribbling a soccer ball as a child through the crowded streets of his Brazilian neighborhood made him much more adept than if he had been assigned to dribble a soccer ball through a standard set of stationary orange cones. Informal sports activities offer a child many opportunities to develop agility by reacting quickly to the surprising and unexpected.

Now lets consider the question of what can be lost when organized sports are begun too soon. I think that a child’s relationship with nature suffers. This is partly due to the time demands of a sports team and how that can dominate the weekend schedule and preclude the possibility of a walk on the Billy Goat Trail, a hike along Rock Creek, or a bike ride on the Tow Path. What I have also seen is that for some sports oriented children time in nature can morph into a sporting event; pinecones become footballs and stones become baseballs, and the peaceful apprehension of the natural world is exchanged for the familiar activity of a sport. (And keep in mind that as children grow older, the familiar often becomes their default choice.)

Following from these observations, my other concern is that excessive early sports experiences dominate a child’s imagination and crowd out other interests. Less worthy heroes supplant figures from literature like Odysseus, Thor, and Heracles. In addition, artwork can become sports oriented and numerous hastily drawn football and hockey players replace the more colorful pictures that were common at an earlier age. Book selections become sports oriented and of course, the need to watch the “must see game” begins to insert itself into the weekend plans.

Because timing is everything, waiting for the nine year change helps a child’s sports interest peak at the right time, in the high school years, when the need for the physical demands of organized sports makes much more sense. With organized sports, waiting is a good thing. It prevents early burnout and early repetitive stress injuries, both increasingly common occurrences today. But in our culture, when it comes to many important decisions affecting our children, few seem willing to wait.

Jack Petrash