Free Sport

Better! Faster! Stronger! Younger?

Long before the notion of the Tiger Mom entered our cultural parenting lexicon, there was the legend of a toddler-aged Tiger Woods.

In 1978, the future perennial golf champion appeared on the Mike Douglas Show, a popular daytime talk show of the day. With the aid of his father, Earl, Tiger placed a ball on the tee, brought back his club, and hit the ball cleanly, driving it ten feet or so. He was two years old.

“Woods’s precocious cameo of the Douglas Show was kitschy entertainment,” writes Mark Hyman, author of Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids. “Yet for the millions of parents watching – and tens of millions who have heard about it over the years – it sent a powerful message: it’s possible to turn your kid into a champion if you start early enough.”

Today, there are more products, companies, and coaches tending to those athletic aspirations than ever before. But if this is the first you’re hearing of Baby Goes Pro, athleticBaby, or GymTrix, it’s probably already too late for your aspiring athlete-to-be.

The brain child of Gigi Fernandez, seventeen-time Grand Slam tennis champion and mother of two, Baby Goes Pro’s “Discover Sports” DVD features an animated monkey coach character named Emkei, who navigates your child through the various movements and pieces of equipment associated with basketball, baseball, soccer, golf, and tennis. “So that if your 3 or 4 year old has been watching Baby Goes Pro, the first time he or she see a tennis racquet, they will know how to pick it up and swing it,” Fernandez notes on their website. “The same goes for gripping a golf club or shooting a basket.”

Not to be outdone, athleticBaby, whose mission is “to create products and programs that inspire children to become physically active and engaged in energetic play at an early age,” offers several videos for viewers as young as three months old, including “athleticBaby Soccer,” “athleticBaby Basketball,” “athleticBaby All-Star,” and more.

Likewise, the children’s exercise company GymTrix advertises itself as “a physical literacy program to help your child learn skills through fun activities on DVD!” Their titles start with “GymTrix Baby,” for kids aged six to eighteen months, and include “GymTrix Toddler,” “GymTrix Pre-School,” and many more.

“Future Robinson Canos and Sidney Crosbys are getting their start in sports earlier than ever,” Hyman notes in his New York Times article “Sports Training Has Begun for Babies and Toddlers.” “Now children are being groomed as athletes before they can walk.”

On the one hand, with society’s growing concerns about children’s obesity, as well as our culture’s ever-expanding array of often-distracting technological gadgetry, any effort to make kids more physically active is a welcome one. But on the other hand, the titles of these DVDs, and the concepts of these companies, seem a bit shocking. Tiger Woods or no Tiger Woods.

What is the purpose of children’s involvement in athletics? How are competitive athletics different from physical activity? How much should we encourage our kids to engage in sports? When do we do a disservice to our kids by not encouraging them enough? And when does that disservice come as a result of pushing them too much?

Not surprisingly, it all depends on who you ask. Finding the desired balance between the simple elation experienced by children being active in their bodies, and the achieved excellence of organized athletic endeavor, is a fluid proposition at best, varying greatly from child to child, to say nothing of the parents, coaches and teachers monitoring, persuading, and consoling said kids along the way.

“In kids’ sports programs,” Dr. Lyle Micheli writes of “Sports Training – How Much Is Too Much?” for the National Center for Sports Safety, “fitness and skill development have to be balanced with the need to avoid overtraining … when the athlete is required to do too much – either physically, mentally, or both.”

Dr. Micheli is the co-founder and director of the Division of Sports Medicine at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, the first medical sports clinic for kids in the world.

“I don’t know of any evidence that training at this infancy stage accelerates coordination,” Micheli told Hyman for The New York Times. But he is concerned about “the potential for even younger ages of overuse injury.”

“Training too much may eventually lead to overuse injuries in which actual damage to the bones and soft tissue occurs because the body can’t recover from the repetitive physical demands placed on it by sports activity,” Micheli writes for the National Center for Sports Safety.

So how much can kids do at what age?

“According to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, physical activity is any type of body movement. Activities include movements such as jumping rope, raking leaves and playing on the playground,” Tina Hatcher writes regarding “Athletic Training for Kids” at LiveStong.com, the website arm of the cancer prevention organization associated with Lance Armstrong. “Physical education is much more defined. It is specifically designed to provide learning opportunities, appropriate instruction, and meaningful, challenging activities for children.”

Hatcher, whose athletic training company Fitness Elements of Roanoke specializes in kids’ fitness, is a Certified Physical Therapist who received her MS in adult fitness and cardiac rehabilitation from Virginia Tech.

“Children need to participate in activities that will enhance their performance based upon their age level,” she continues. “Improperly designed programs and programs that are too mature for the younger age groups can actually inhibit and hurt athletic performance.”

In addition to concerns regarding physical activity, mental health injuries should also be considered, as the latter can be just as serious, and result in a child shutting down when confronting a physical experience, often the exact opposite reaction desired by most athletic mentors.

A common way to achieve this balance is by incorporating the “flow model,” originally described in psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which has been adopted by most outdoor educational organizations, like Outward Bound, and Project Adventure.

The flow model measures increasing levels of ability, both physical and mental, with increasing levels of challenge, both physical and mental, as a series of zones: Comfort Zone, Growth Zone, and Danger Zone. Basically, if a task is too easy for an individual’s ability, the child is likely to become bored or disinterested. Conversely, if the task is too difficult, the child is likely to shut down due to stress and worry over concerns of physical and emotional safety. But a challenge in the middle level results in the most optimal amount of growth.

“If we always live in our comfort zone, we will not grow,” Kyle Forbes Bissell tells me. “It’s healthy to live in the growth zone.”

The Lead Teacher for Physical Education at The Common School here in the Valley, Bissell received a Master’s in Education Design from Lesley University, and has used the flow model in his instruction of not just physical education, but skiing, rock climbing, paddling, and archery as well.

“Teaching the flow model to kids helps them with sovereignty and autonomy, helps them make choices and decisions regarding how far to push themselves,” Bissell continues. “One of the lessons children need to discover, in order to grow into individuals who love physical activity, is that of self preservation, of both the physical and the emotional self. We need to learn the gray areas that exist between comfort zones and growth zones, and between growth zones and danger zones. Don’t push enough, and your body and mind may grow weak. Push too much and you will certainly burn out before your time.”

By incorporating “positive stress” rather than “distress” into a child’s educational or athletic environment, Bissell says, kids can become resilient, stronger, and healthier.

Bissell adds that he encourages kids to be aware of how their body feels when they do different activities at various speeds. This allows children to monitor their own individual level of education or training as it pertains to their constantly evolving level of challenge.

Which is an attribute that Dr. Micheli advocates for, as well.

“Increasing the frequency, duration, or intensity of training too quickly is one of the main causes of injury,” Dr. Micheli writes for the National Center for Sports Safety. “I am a strong believer in athletes following the “ten-percent rule” … [which] refers to the amount a young athlete’s training can be increased every week without risking injury. In other words, a child running twenty minutes at a time four times a week can probably safely run twenty-two minutes four times a week the week after, an increase of ten percent.”

“Most of the injuries I see in my clinic are the product of violations of the ten percent rule,” Micheli continues, “when young athletes have their training regimen increased” too quickly.

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate's Winter 2012 issue of Nurture, but not online.)

© 2014 The Valley Advocate