Reclaiming the sandlot


Can youth sports be saved? by Kimberly Straub



photo by Josh Hawkins In a sandlot-style ballgame, Joey Mendonca tries to tag his cousin Shannon Dsoza. Experts say unstructured games are a good way for young kids to develop athletically without pressure.

Marcia McNichols says when her kids were young, she and her husband "didn't want champions. We didn't shoot for scholarships," she says. "We just tried to expose them to all kinds of sports so they could decide which ones they truly enjoyed."

Both champion swimmers who swam in college, McNichols and her husband, Jim, are "athletic to the bone," says the mother of three, who lives in Naperville. But, when the time came to consider organized sports for their kids, McNichols says she and Jim didn't want them exposed to the pressures they felt as kids.

"It was our approach to not have them involved in any competitive, time-commitment programs until junior high," she says.

Twins Matt and Lauren, and Kelly, the youngest, dabbled in a variety of sports at the recreational level but none pursued any sport competitively until seventh grade. "From most parents' point of view, that would feel late," says McNichols. "But we didn't care. At that time, we were just having fun throwing the Wiffle ball, running bases in the back yard [and] building igloos in the snow."

Summer is here. School is out. Kids are free to get outside and play. But for the 22 million children between the ages of 6 and 18 who participate in organized sports each year, sports are not necessarily about playing. More than ever, sports have moved away from the sandlot and toward structure.

Today's Little Leaguers wear costly jerseys with their names on the back; they body-slam one another after scoring; they compete in national championships at the age of 6.

Is competition being introduced too soon? Is it safe? Are kids being coached by people who understand the physical strengths and weaknesses of a developing young child? Are they learning sportsmanship and a lifelong love of physical activity? At what price are they becoming mini-professionals?

"Kids are playing games that look exactly like the ones they see on TV," says Bob Bigelow, sports activist and author of Just Let the Kids Play. "Third-graders that are 4-foot-1, 63 pounds are shooting into the same 10-foot baskets professionals use. That's not a [child's] game."

According to Bigelow, the advent of prime-time sports channels and the buzz surrounding college scholarships in the last 25 years has driven sports mania to unseen levels.

Bigelow calls it "the Tiger Woods syndrome." Just as the champion golfer started early, trained hard and broke world records, parents believe if their child follows that model, he or she will have similar success-complete with a multimillion-dollar Nike endorsement contract. Says Bigelow: "Adults think every child has the potential to become a world-class athlete. [No longer] is having talent to begin with part of the formula."

Experts say starting kids at an earlier age in organized sports, where adults define the rules and the competition, does not help children develop as athletes. Surprisingly, the sandlot, where kids defined the rules and made play the structure for their games, provided a better way for children to learn athletic skill and confidence.

Too much? Anthony Louis says his 9-year-old son has played ice hockey pretty much year-round since the age of 4. "Last summer was his first summer off," says the Winfield father of four. "He gets a little tired."

Louis says he spends as much as $8,000 on his son, Anthony, who competes at the top level on a traveling team. Anthony's team, the Bensenville-based Chicago Blues, plays an average of 60 games throughout the year and practices three to five days a week. Even though it is a huge time commitment and financial burden, Louis says it is all worth it because his son is learning that hard work pays off. "Just like anything in life, you can never learn too much," he says.

But experts disagree; there is such a thing as too much. Parents who invest a great deal of time and money in their children's advancement are placing a lot of pressure on the children to progress faster than the kids might be comfortable with.

Dr. Maurice Sholas of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, says some training practices are too demanding for a child's growing body. "There are a number of sports injuries associated with higher-level play and overtraining," he says. "Kids not yet at puberty are at highest risk for recurring injuries [such as] tendonitis, strength imbalances, misalignment and aggravations to the growth plates [areas of growing tissue near the end of the long bones in children]."

Little Leaguer's elbow and jumper's knee are two injuries that result from growth plate injuries.

According to Brian Grasso, president of the Elmhurst-based Developing Athletics, there are presently no certification measures for coaching at the youth level. Often the programs are run by former high-school athletes with strategies that mimic those of high-school and college coaches.

Developing Athletics works to educate parents, coaches and young athletes in child development and athletics. But more than education, there is a need for coaching standards. Grasso is heading up the International Youth Conditioning Association, which will create the very first certification standards for adults interested in coaching. "We're looking to make legislative change," he says. "Education requirements are going to have to be implemented at the youth level."

According to Dr. Bruce Svare, director of the National Institute for Sports Reform, a child is 70 times more likely to earn an academic scholarship than an athletic scholarship. Therefore, parents who splurge on private lessons, camps and top-of-the-line equipment in hopes of securing a college scholarship have a slim chance of recouping their investment in the end.

Burnout, a condition of mental and physical exhaustion, most commonly afflicts overpressured, overtrained and overscheduled competitors. And according to Svare, it is at epidemic levels among young athletes: 70 percent burn out before the age of 13.

Says Bigelow, "If you do something for too long, too much, too often, you eventually get tired of it."

Too soon? Joni Mallory, a mother of two who lives in Bartlett, says to play league soccer in her neighborhood, the kids are encouraged to start learning basic skills at 4. For that reason, Mallory signed up her 4- and 5-year-old for a drills class offered by the park district. She says: "The kids advance so quickly through these programs that if they miss a year, they're really behind. And I don't want my kid coming to me later on saying he didn't make the team or something because I didn't start him young enough."

Overwhelmingly, parents start their kids early because they do not know any better. It is the "everyone's doing it" phenomenon. And that is why there are national championships for 6-year-olds.

According to Wade Schalles, assistant to the president at the Amateur Athletic Union, a nonprofit sports organization that coordinates youth sporting events, "The youth marketplace is growing because there is revenue to be captured in youth sports." He says he knows several businesses that make an entire year's income off one event.

"A child at a very young age has no sense of competition," says Deborah Feltz, professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University. "Only as kids start to mature do they realize losing is a product of not only physical skills but also strategy, preparation, [your opponent's] skills and luck."

Feltz estimates kids begin to understand they can lose and still be a success around age 8. "What we don't want is for kids to start forming a connection between winning and their self-esteem," says Joan Almon, U.S. coordinator of the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit committed to resurrecting play. Yet, she says, that is the outcome when competition is introduced too soon.

According to Bigelow, too many coaches are encouraging kids to specialize in one sport at a young age. He says without the variety, kids burn out faster. "At the least, kids should be exposed to three team sports and three individual sports," he says. "Specialization should come no earlier than their junior year in high school."

Too competitive? "Sports for sports' sake is going by the boards," regrets Svare. More than ever, if kids want to play sports, they must play competitively.

"You always hear coaches saying they're teaching life skills," says Steven Danish, director of the Life Skills Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. "And I'm finding that they're not. Coaches don't really care about fitness. Their job is to win."

Today, kids must go through tryouts and cuts to earn positions on traveling teams by age 8 and 9. If they make the cut, they are segregated into elite and secondary teams. These teams feed into the high school teams. So, if a child does not make it into the feeder system, it can kill their sports career before they enter high school. "It establishes a caste system that tells kids they're not good enough, long before it is possible to tell which ones have the raw talent," Bigelow says.

Today's selection process discourages the late bloomers, many of whom have the potential to be great athletes. Case in point: Michael Jordan was cut from his high-school varsity team. According to Feltz of Michigan State, "You have no idea, prior to a growth spurt, how successful you will be."

"Today, it's all about cutting kids [from elite teams] because they don't add to the scoreboard," says Gary Avischious, founder of www.coaching, an electronic-based program that provides coaching education on the benefits of play-based athletic training.

By kids, for kids Fifty years ago, the sandlot was America's playground. Created, run and ruled by kids, it was one of the few places they could call their own. But the sandlot was more than just child's play. The kids were learning life skills without knowing it.

"Growing up, we used to play a little game called three-on-three baseball with no right field," says Bigelow. "It would only take six players, not the usual 18. We'd eliminate hits to right field, since the majority was right-handed. We'd have a pitcher, a shortstop and a left-fielder. This was a game modified and adopted for kids, by kids. And, one thing was for certain: No one ever sat on the bench."

Svare of the National Institute for Sports Reform commends sports for their development of physical fitness, social skills, self-determination and self-esteem. However, as the founder of the nonprofit group committed to reforming sports at the pre-professional level, Svare says youth sports are "in a state of peril."

At the heart of the problem, he says, are adults.

"We've put too much power in the hands of the people that are administrating, governing and coaching our kids," says Bigelow. "It's adults using kids as pawns."

Equally guilty are parents living through their children's successes, coaches teaching 8-year-olds drills for high schoolers and businesspeople marketing professional-like hoopla to throngs of zealous parents.

Yet there are some, like McNichols, who avoid the hype and let their kids play like kids. "It is all just too competitive, too much, too soon," she says.

The sandlot died. We cannot bring it back. Blame urban sprawl, crime and the rise of after-school programs for its disappearance. But, Grasso, of the Elmhurst-based Developing Athletics, says the values of the sandlot can still be reclaimed. "The sandlot mentality has to be put back into youth sports," he says.

"Restoring the love of the game-the joy of the sport-starts with gifted coaching," says Avischious.

The sandlot is lost, but not forgotten. The spirit of the sandlot can rebound if we give sports back to kids.

"Coach Ed" Pawlak calls the 4- to 6-year-olds in his "Mini Sports" class his "little chicken nuggets." Teaching kids who can't keep their hands out of their mouths, ears or "other places" how to shoot a basketball is tough indeed. But Pawlak, who teaches at the Glen Ellyn Park District, speaks their language: When he says "butterflies to the ear," the kids know exactly what to do. They join their thumbs and move their hands by their left ears. Add a ball to the equation and the kids are perfectly positioned for shooting.

Pawlak's instruction is an example of what Avischious calls "the play-based" model." Instead of using drills, which only teach memorization, Pawlak creates innovative learning devices to teach children basic athletic skills. He rewards effort rather than results and scraps the rulebook to design novel games that keep the kids active and amused.

"Too many adults think kids have to learn ‘the real game' as young as possible," says Bigelow.

According to Grasso, unstructured learning methods, which incorporate sandlot-style play, "are very much rooted in science."

Avischious says play is nothing but a "great paradox. The stereotype is that play is pointless [and] trivial, but the kids that are more playful will have better skills at sports." He says the more a coach focuses on enjoyment, the better his athletes will become. "When kids aren't afraid to fail, they try new things," says Avischious. "When they try new things, their muscles develop inherent wisdom that they can later use to master all different types of skills."

The McNichols' children, who their mother says were just "playing around" during childhood, are all grown up now. Matt, 18, Lauren, 18, and Kelly, 16, have excelled at virtually every sport they entered competitively since the age of 12. Today, all three are All-American swimmers, which means they each have one of the top 100 times in the nation.

"It's funny," says McNichols. "We didn't do anything to cause it. But, when junior high rolled around, somehow these kids drove to the top of the pile quicker than most."

The five cardinal rules Five principles governed the sandlot, each one offering a valuable life skill: • No one jeopardizes playtime. Fighting, crying and laziness took time away from the game. And that simply would not be tolerated. The kids just knew, "The more they argued, the less they played," says Bob Bigelow, author of Just Let the Kids Play. Life skill: conflict resolution • Rules are meant to be broken. Bigelow says children left to their own devices will design activities where everyone plays. People who didn't have a place in the game would start a new one. "Back then, the kids weren't always waiting for someone else to give them the agenda," says Diane Levin, co-founder of the coalition group, Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children. "They used their imaginations and created it on their own." Life skill: problem solving • Learn to be a team player or don't play at all. No one likes a cheater, a sore loser or a showoff-especially on the sandlot. "I don't care how good they were," says Steven Danish, director of the Life Skills Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. "They had to work with the group if they wanted to play." Life skill: cooperation • Mix it up. The sandlot turned out well-rounded athletes. The kids seldom played the same games each day. Says Bigelow: "Cross training, that's what play is." It is having fun while strengthening different muscle groups and building different skills. Life skill: adaptability • A good game is a close game. In the days of the sandlot, winning wasn't everything. When one team started to rack up all the points, the players would reorganize. "They wouldn't allow a game to go on that was lopsided," says Deborah Feltz, professor and chairperson of kinesiology at Michigan State University. Life skill: good sportsmanship

* WEB EXTRAS Unorganizing sports resources Web sites and tips on kids sports

Web sites National Alliance for Youth Sports America's leading advocate for positive and safe sports National Institute for Sports Reform Nonprofit committed to reducing the growing trend of early professionalization and specialization of very young athletes

P.E.4 Life Supports the improvement, expansion and recognition of school-based physical education programs Alliance for Childhood Partnership committed to fostering each child's inherent right to a healthy, developmentally appropriate childhood

International Youth Conditioning Association International group working to enhance the knowledge of youth sports professionals and volunteers continuing education requirements Beating the burn Here are a few things you can do to prevent your child from burning out:

• Don't focus on the score."Very good coaches would say kids compete against their own potential," says Steven Danish, director of the Life Skills Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.

• Find out the coach's strategy. Wade Schalles, assistant to the president at the Amateur Athletic Union, says, "You have to sit down and think about what values you want to impart to your children."

• Compliment, compliment, compliment. According to Villa Park mom, Leigh Gibson, "You can't over-compliment."

• Keep it fresh. “Stay away from coaches [who] ask you to specialize too early,"says Gary Avischious, of the Coaching Institute. "At a young age, the emphasis should be on variety."


Kimberly Straub, a former Chicago Parent intern, is in Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.



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