News & Politics

Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

A Soccer Dad Argues That Big Money, Elite Teams, and Trophy-Obsessed Parents Are Ruining Youth Sports--and Some of Our Children.

NORTHWEST OF THE DISTRICT, CARVED OUT OF ROLLING HILLS IN GERMANtown, lies a suburban paradise known as the SoccerPlex. Its 162 acres cradle 24 fields, each precision-graded by lasers and carpeted in Bermuda and bluegrass. Woods line the perimeter.

The SoccerPlex opened two years ago at a celebration with fireworks. Heroes of the day included the government leaders and business titans who helped bankroll the $15-million complex, including Wizards owner Abe Pollin and Discovery Communications mogul John Hendricks.

"It probably will be the finest soccer-field complex in the nation," said one US soccer official.

I wish they'd bulldoze the place. Rip out the 3,200-seat championship stadium.

Paradise, I say, is filled with snakes.

Thirty years ago, i rode the first wave of the area soccer boom, donning a MONTGOMERY SOCCER INC. T-shirt at age seven. I played for another 20 years, through high school and college. Now, as the 37-year-old soccer dad of three kids, I should be thrilled that the area boasts such a showcase.

But why do kids' games need a showcase? No offense to Misters Pollin and Hendricks, but the SoccerPlex is the product of good intentions run amok. It's a mansion where a bungalow would have fit the bill nicely. Every game there takes on great importance, whether a routine matchup of two local teams or the national youth championships, which the complex hosted this summer. No matter how many "play for fun" bromides coaches and parents toss about, the manicured fields and lavish appointments send a different message: This is a big deal.

Kids get that message a lot these days. We've turned sandlot fun into serious business. Children don't play at sports so much as work at them. They start athletic "careers" before kindergarten. By the time they are eight or nine, the talented ones swear fealty to a single sport and commit to year-round "training" of such rigor that pediatricians wince.

The best athletes move into the elite arena of select and travel leagues. Basketball teams of nine- and ten-year-olds–kids still learning the multiplication tables–are groomed for national championships.

In soccer, ex-pro stars and former college players command thousands of dollars to coach little kids, and players shuffle among teams like major-league free agents. The Bethesda Fury, a girls' soccer team that won the 17-and-under national championship in 2001, looked like a Dan Snyder collection of superstars, with players from Annapolis, Frederick, and Ellicott City. One lived in Vermont, traveling on weekends to join the team for games.

I don't want to overstate the problem: Plenty of kids play on relaxed teams coached by volunteer moms and dads. But if you're raising children with athletic talent, it's easy to get drawn into a culture that takes games very seriously. That culture is designed to cultivate better talent, but oddly enough, it may do the opposite.

The too-serious nature of kids' sports is not lost on league organizers. They blame out-of-control parents. Coaches and officials I spoke with for this article pointed an accusing finger at the Crofton parents who allegedly followed a 16-year-old soccer referee from the field last year, threatening to beat her up. "If we could just get rid of the zealots, everything would be okay," one said.

But the craziness of youth sports can't be blamed on the zealots. A mild strain of craziness runs through all of us. No one is immune. Including me.

I grew up in bethesda, in a neighborhood near Wood Acres Elementary School crawling with kids. Every day after school I'd grab a snack and head out the door. My friends and I played football on a sliver of grass at a neighborhood church. A telephone pole marked one end zone, a bush the other.

Or we'd gather in my side yard to play a form of baseball called "five hits." We made the game up or inherited it from older kids–I can't remember which. One of us fungoed a fly ball, and the rest jockeyed beneath it, climbing over one another to be the first to catch five flies and take over as hitter.

Childhood fun like this is celebrated in The Games We Played, published last year and edited by Steven Cohen, a Washington writer. David Maraniss, George Plimpton, Brad Meltzer, David Baldacci, and others contributed essays in which they marveled at the free and easy days of their youth.

"The essential wonder of the games we played is that we played them blessedly free from adults," writes Maraniss. "There were no soccer moms or Little League dads. For better or for worse, we defined and lived in our own world."

Kids don't play like that today. Stories of crime and violence have so scared parents that we keep kids tethered to the house and backyard. And with moms joining dads in the workforce, we ask after-school programs to manufacture the fun that children once invented for themselves.

This cultural shift has touched off a boom in organized sports. Pop Warner football grew 50 percent in the 1990s. In the half decade ending in 2001, participation in Boys and Girls Clubs sports nearly doubled, to almost 2 million kids.

Much of this growth comes from programs aimed at the youngest children. Teams for tots are everywhere. Darryl Gee, a former Oakland Mills High School and New York Cosmos star, runs an areawide soccer program for kids age three and up. In Alexandria, where I live, kids take part in T-ball and soccer before they reach kindergarten. McLean boasts a track team for five-year-olds and cheerleading for first-graders.

For the past three years, i've coached four-, five-, and six-year-olds in Alexandria's soccer league. At practices we play traditional kids' games–freeze tag, sharks and minnows, steal the bacon–with a ball at their feet so they learn to dribble as they walk, run, and change direction. Saturday games are packaged benignly: No score is kept.

It's easy to see all this as nothing but wholesome fun. The kids are running around in the fresh air–the answer to the scolds who warn that our children are too fat and watch too much television. And they're learning teamwork, discipline, and self-confidence–the time-honored dividends of sports.

Besides, they look cute. When two of them squeeze into a lawn chair at halftime and suck oranges, the sun dancing in their hair, it's a Norman Rockwell image.

This picture doesn't tell the whole story. Child-development experts and physicians say we oversell the value of sports for kids–and overlook the dangers.

Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics challenged the conventional wisdom about the benefits of sports for young kids–namely, that it makes them better athletes and boosts their self-esteem.

"Basic motor skills, such as throwing, catching, kicking, and hitting a ball, do not develop sooner simply as a result of introducing them to children at an early age," the academy said. Too often, coaches teach skills that kids don't have the physical maturity to learn. The result? Coaches get frustrated, and kids feel like failures.

David Elkind, a Tufts University professor, is a noted critic of sports for the preschool and kindergarten set. In his seminal 1981 book, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, he argues that societal forces and well-meaning adults are conspiring to initiate children "into the rigors of adult competition."

The concept of childhood, Elkind says, is endangered by, among other things, preschools and kindergartens that push an academic curriculum; media that promote sexuality and other adult behavior; and increasing stresses on families, including divorce and time-consuming jobs for one or both parents.

Last year, in a third edition of The Hurried Child, Elkind added a critique of youth sports: "Parents are under more pressure than ever to overschedule their children and have them engage in organized sports and other activities that may be age-inappropriate."

Organized sports are as likely to trample a child's self-esteem as build it up, he says. "I see little value and considerable risk in engaging young children in organized team or individual sports. I believe there is no reason to involve a child in such sports until at least the age of six or seven."

I called dr. stanley greenspan, a Bethesda child psychiatrist and author, for another opinion. Greenspan echoed Elkind's critique. Children ages four to six crave the emotional intimacy of informal play, he says. Organized teams are usually too big to achieve such intimacy.

Perhaps worse, games put kids in the spotlight before crowds of parents and friends. "Even if everyone's supportive," Greenspan says, "the pressure's still there."

Youth-sports veterans know what he's talking about. At my kids' games, parents ring the field or the court. Some shout directions, following play up and down the sideline.

"I wish everybody would be quiet," my eight-year-old son said after a basketball game. "I can't hear myself think."

When we start children playing at such young ages, it's easy within a few seasons to forget they're just kids. I once saw a soccer game among seven-year-olds in which one disinterested boy loped along and goofed with his friends. His mother later scolded him: "You're embarrassing me and your father, and you're embarrassing yourself."

Unlike Elkind, Greenspan doesn't rule out organized sports for young children. When we talked, he spoke of efforts to change the climate at games. Some leagues, for example, have experimented with "silent Saturdays," when cheering is banned–a notion, I confess, that seems unnatural. Encouragement and enthusiasm are healthy aspects of the game; all that's called for on the part of coaches, parents, and players is a normal mix of sportsmanship and common sense.

For younger players, I prefer alternatives suggested by Greenspan. Why not do away with games altogether? Turn practices into Saturday "events," and have parents come out and play with the kids in small groups. "Maybe have a cookout afterward," he says.

Recently i served on an alexandria soccer-league committee to consider changes to the game format for the youngest kids. A handful of coaches gathered one evening at the committee chair's house. There was a little talk about changing the format, but mostly everyone lamented the poor quality of play in the city.

Alexandria teams are perennial doormats in elite leagues, a sore point with the coaches in the room that night. They moaned about the talent coming to tryouts. "A lot of these kids are still kicking with their toe," one coach said with disgust.

Someone else complained that the youngest kids, the under-five or "U-5" teams, practice only once a week. "People need to understand this is a commitment," he said.

I felt sheepish. I'm one of the coaches who practices his team just once a week. I figure that session–plus a Saturday game–is plenty for children whose calendars already are packed with play dates, dance lessons, and the like. A lot of the kids on my teams are kindergartners getting their first taste of all-day school. They often arrive at practice cranky and worn out.

Yet each year I'm tempted to schedule a second practice. I worry that I'm shortchanging talented kids. "Other teams are practicing twice a week," some parents say. "Why don't we?"

The pressure gets worse as kids get older. "The more-is-better attitude is epidemic," says Gary Allen, director of coaching education for the Virginia Youth Soccer Association. Select soccer teams have fall and spring seasons, move indoors for winter leagues and training, and squeeze half a dozen tournaments in between, he says. During summer, a few teams sign up as a group for camps: "Some kids literally never take a break."

Last year Allen's 13-year-old daughter announced she was going to sit out a soccer season. Puzzled, Allen tallied the number of games she'd played in the previous four seasons. "I counted 91," he says. "No wonder she needed a rest."

Soccer isn't the only sport that's become a year-round campaign. Virtually every game has been uprooted from its traditional season. Baseball has found its way into fall. Football has invaded spring. Track and crew are anytime sports.

I got a taste of the year-round phenomenon in my last year at Walt Whitman High School. It was 1982, and indoor soccer leagues were just beginning, including one at a new indoor complex in Gaithersburg.

The games, which started as late as 10 PM, were an adventure. A few of us from the Whitman team would throw on T-shirts of the same color, pile into a car, and blast out I-270. No adults came; we set the lineups and devised our own game strategies, much as my friends and I did in grade school playing football in the churchyard.

Today, it's often not enough to play sports year-round. You must train. That means coaches, practices, hard work.

One day this January, I watched a soccer team of 10- and 11-year-olds practice at the Rockville SportsPlex, a 63,000-square-foot facility with turf fields, basketball courts, and batting cages. Three coaches in matching sweats and polo shirts directed an intense two-hour workout that included sprints, sit-ups, and stern talk. "You're killing us with that pass," one of the coaches scolded.

John Burns, a partner in the venture that opened the SportsPlex in 2000, says teams sometimes rent the fields for conditioning and speed workouts. "When I was growing up, you didn't do much in the off-season–maybe a little weightlifting," says Burns, a former All-American baseball player at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "Now if you want to stay competitive, you have to train in the winter."

Kids know this, and the fear of falling behind drives them. At National Cathedral School, many girls who row crew supplement the NCS team's regimen–winter training and a spring regatta season–with summer and fall club teams. Coach Allison Kornet suggests they ease off for at least a season, but many won't listen.

"They just grind, grind, grind," says Kor-net. "It's not rational. It's a game, a sport."

Doctors cast a wary eye on this trend. There's been little study of how young athletes train, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But in 2000, the group warned that there are "regimens for children that could be considered extreme for adults." It also discouraged kids from specializing in one sport until adolescence; research suggests that kids who play multiple sports suffer fewer injuries and perform better than those who don't.

Pediatricians and sports-medicine experts say they are for the first time seeing kids suffering from "overuse" injuries such as stress fractures and tendinitis. This is a "direct outgrowth of the organization of children's sports," writes Dr. Lyle Micheli, sports-medicine director at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital, in The Sports Medicine Bible for Young Athletes. "No child ever did anything repetitively enough in a sandlot game to cause an overuse injury."

Then there's the question of what kids give up for a steady diet of one sport. "I've known kids who can't even go to church with their family on Sunday," says Edward Masood, head of athletics in Montgomery County schools. "They're playing with the high-school team two games a week, practicing four days a week, then playing with a club team on Sundays. Where the hell's their life?

"Kids get locked into sports at the expense of other things, like singing or art. And that's not appropriate. There's a whole child we should be dealing with."

Daniel Gould, a sports psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, worries that sports has become a business for too many kids.

"It seems like we're getting caught up in the professional model of sports," he says. "We may be skipping the part where we let the kids fall in love with the game."

The professional model is most evident in travel leagues, where elite teams traverse the country to square off against other top squads. These leagues ask remarkably grown-up behavior of kids.

Consider Kellie Boyle's story. Three years ago, her oldest son, Griffin, joined a Reston Raiders travel hockey team. He was six. Growing up in Loudoun County, Boyle had played hockey on a nearby pond, and watching Griffin take skating lessons, she thought he would have fun learning stick-handling.

The October-to-March season, however, proved a marathon. The kids were on the ice sometimes six days a week, and games started as early as 6 AM. Then there were tournament trips to Philadelphia, Richmond, and Delaware.

At the end of the season, after spending $2,000 on league fees and travel, the family decided Griffin would play on a recreational team instead. The pressure, Boyle says, was too much. "These were little kids who couldn't even tie their skates. It was insane."

Striking examples of sports madness can be found in the area's travel soccer leagues, particularly among the top teams. Most are coached by professionals–former college stars and ex-pros from Brazil, Argentina, and Germany–who often handle two or three teams. They charge between $3,500 and $5,000 per team per season. Those with good records in state-cup and regional championships can make $10,000 a season.

Recruiting is common. Tryout notices read like come-ons from Fortune 500 companies. An ad posted on a league Web site by "one of Maryland's most successful U-11 teams" boasts, "Our coaching corps has more than 35 years' experience and includes a former all-conference collegiate keeper and a former Salvadoran national player."

A Loudoun under-11 team declares that it is "seeking committed, talented, and motivated players" for "our future climb to the top of the age bracket."

The most aggressive clubs swap players with the gusto of professional teams, says Pete Mehlert, a former head coach at American University who now runs three kids' teams. "It's like the New York Yankees. When you don't win enough games, you go out and get a player and cut another one."

Tournaments are critical to a team's prestige. The Web site relies on tourney results to compile state, regional, and national rankings for teams as young as U-11. At this year's Tampa Bay Sun Bowl, a Christmastime tournament popular with DC teams, some 200 college coaches showed up.

"I have friends who–counting registration fees, airfare, hotel, and everything else–are paying $7,000 a year," says Kip Germain, athletic director of the Annandale Boys' and Girls' Club and a former pro soccer player with the Washington Diplomats. "And the kid's only 13 years old."

The professionalization of kids' games stems in part from changes in the way we live. Parents sometimes hire coaches because they're too busy themselves to commit to practices and games.

There are advantages to pro coaches. They eliminate the awkward politics of parents' making roster choices and deciding playing time for children of friends. Some are educators whose experience in a sport makes them better equipped for the job than a parent.

Even in baseball, America's pastime, dads who played the game may not be capable of coaching elite players. "There gets to be a point that the kids have played so much baseball that they know more about it than the fathers do," says Denise Gorham of Bethesda-Chevy Chase Baseball, which hires professionals–usually high-school coaches–for its select teams. When I talked to parents of children on travel teams, many laughed and admitted that the culture of the leagues is crazy. But they said their kids enjoy it.

"As you get into more competitive play, it gets nutso," says Tal Albertson, whose 16-year-old son plays for a top DC travel soccer team. "But he wants to compete at this level. He enjoys it. If he didn't, we wouldn't be doing it."

Albertson is right: Some kids need tough competition to enjoy playing sports. But elite teams aren't for everybody. The dominant travel soccer leagues in the area–the Washington Area Girls Soccer League and the National Capital Soccer League for boys–have the same cachet as gifted-and-talented programs in schools. Last January, WAGS had 22 teams on a waiting list for its U-12 and U-13 divisions. NCSL fields more than 500 teams–about 150 more than a decade ago.

"Something like this isn't for the masses," says Pete Mehlert, the former American University coach. "It works for a few, but not for many."

Martha Nelson offers a cautionary tale. Nelson's an All-American cross-country runner at Amherst College, but her first passion was soccer. She started playing at five and by fourth grade had moved on to a travel team with a bunch of friends.

"I loved the team," Nelson says. "The woman who coached was a mom, and we were really, really good."

When the team moved up to a tougher division, it started losing. Parents hired a coach, a former European professional. "We really venerated this man," Nelson says. "There was a sense that he was going to make something incredible of us."

Though the team had moments of glory and played well on a trip to Sweden, it began to lose core players. Pregame preparation included an hourlong warm-up, and the coach required girls to polish their shoes and eat pasta the night before games. He asked some players to quit. "You all are like my family . . ." wrote one departing girl to her teammates. "I'm afraid that you will think that this is my doing and that I chose to leave. That is not the case. You know I wouldn't leave this team in a million years."

The coach encouraged Nelson to quit, too. She was small–she didn't top 100 pounds until sophomore year in high school–and easily pushed around. The coach rarely played her and urged in a letter to her parents that she "move on."

"I cried for two years," Nelson says, but she wouldn't quit. She stuck with the team to be with her friends and play the game she loved. By high school, when she added some weight to her frail frame, her play improved, and she returned to a starting job on the team.

"In some ways, I feel like I might have taught my coach a lesson," Nelson says.

The 1996 presidential campaign introduced the phrase "soccer mom." It defined the swing voters that Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were courting: middle- and upper-middle-class suburban moth-ers portrayed by pollsters and the media as harried women whose days were spent behind the wheel of a minivan, hustling kids to and from soccer practice.

The term resonates because it captures a suburban reality: The lives of many families revolve around kids' games. The color-coded calendars that hang in kitchens include piano lessons and SAT tutoring. But sports are the only activity to engender a lifestyle that's become grist for politics.

How did this happen? In Washington, we can look for answers in the culture of the region. Its affluence means that many parents don't think twice about dropping hundreds of dollars on a coach or a clinic. An obsession with politics makes us fixated on winning and losing, some say. We're a population of strivers, and our workaholic habits spill into sports, leading to five-day-a-week practices and year-round training. "The only thing we know in terms of encouraging success is to work more and start at it earlier," says Gary Allen of Virginia Youth Soccer.

Many Washington parents and school administrators also see kids' sports as a chit in the college-admissions game. That game favors athletes, as James Shulman and William Bowen demonstrate in The Game of Life, a study of athletics at Ivy League schools and selective liberal-arts colleges without big-time sports. Despite their academic focus, these schools recruit athletes heavily and give them unusual preference in admissions, Shulman and Bowen say.

In one incoming class at a nonscholarship school, athletes had a 48 percent better chance of getting accepted than other applicants. Children of alumni, by contrast, were 25 percent more likely to get in, minorities 18 percent more likely.

Parents recognize this advantage and seize it, says an education consultant who advises college-bound high-schoolers. "They are far more agitated about this than is healthy," says the consultant, who used to teach and coach at a DC private school.

He adds that one of his clients is pushing her son to swim competitively because she believes it's the ticket to his choice of college. "The kid doesn't want to keep swimming, but there's real pressure from the mother to keep at it because she thinks this will probably get him in," the counselor says. "And it probably will, because he doesn't have anything else in his record that sparkles."

There may be lots of parents like this one. But I suspect something less malevolent is at work, something that has to do with subtle changes in parenting.

David Brooks, a Washington writer with two children in sports leagues, identified these changes in an Atlantic Monthly essay, "The Organization Kid." Brooks describes an "achievement ethos" that surrounds child-rearing today.

"Accomplishment begins with the first breaths of life," he writes. "Books about what to expect in the first year lay out achievement markers starting in the first month, and from then on childhood is one long progression of measurements, from nursery-school admissions to SATs."

Parenting literature and popular magazines, Brooks argues, breed fear that it's up to parents to "get the most out of their child's genetic stock." So they pump classical music into the crib, fill playpens with toys from the WETA store, and pore over Smart-Wiring Your Baby's Brain.

The achievement ethos unsettles soccer moms and dads like me in a similar way. When kids' games were pulled out of the backyard and put under adult control, they became a new yardstick by which to measure children. Did George make the team? Did Susan start?

This anxiety fuels the youth-sports boom just as it feeds the market for infant Mozart CDs. Parents can't resist anything–toddler teams, year-round training, professional coaches–that promises our kids a leg up.

Sure, we want kids to have fun. But our idea of fun is different from what David Maraniss and his fellow writers celebrate in The Games We Played. We're focused on the fun that comes from improving at a sport, of working hard and achieving–not of playing the game itself. It's an adult's concept of fun, not necessarily a child's.

I was struck by that while watching Pete Mehlert's select Bethesda soccer team of seven- and eight-year-olds in "winter training" at a Sidwell Friends gym. The practice had the feel of a well-run classroom. A small, sinewy man with glasses, Mehlert spoke firmly but never raised his voice. He stopped the action frequently to lecture at length on technique. No one giggled as he spoke. No one goofed off. When the coach asked a question, kids raised their hands and waited to be called on.

Time and again, Mehlert offered the carrot of self-improvement. "If you can do this," he said to the kids after demonstrating one move, "you become a better player right away."

Select soccer, Mehlert argues, is not too different from an AP course or a gifted-and-talented program. And he believes that, like an SAT tutor or piano teacher, he is paid to get the most out of kids.

"When I coach, it's not about winning," he says, "it's about development."

Development sounds like a great goal. But what we do in the name of development is often crazy. And we know it. Standing on the sidelines, we guzzle coffee and grumble about vacations missed for tournaments and money spent on coaches and clinics. But when the whistle blows, we pack everyone up and hustle off to the next practice. If we didn't, we might be shortchanging our kids.

"It's hard to know if you've got a good family these days," says Guy Van Syckle, a Great Falls child psychologist and travel-lacrosse coach. "A lot of people reassure themselves that they have a good family if their kids are in the right schools and on good sports teams. They need that visible proof that their kids are okay."

When Van Syckle's daughter was in kindergarten, she announced one day that she wanted to sign up for soccer. Van Syckle, worried that the registration deadline had passed, rushed to phone the coach. "I remember thinking, 'I better get on the bandwagon or my kid's going to miss out.'

"It's so easy to get swept up in it all," he says. "And I'm a child psychologist. I should know better.

"It'd be nice if we could just take a deep breath and relax."

Lots of people involved in kids' sports know there's a problem. Sideline scandals like the one in Crofton have prompted leagues to introduce codes of conduct, with sanctions for abusive parents, coaches, and players. Officials also are working with the Positive Coaching Alliance, a Stanford-based organization that promotes kinder, gentler coaching strategies.

These initiatives may help, but I'm skeptical. They target a win-at-all-costs mentality that, while prevalent, can't be blamed for everything. Even people who don't care about winning can wreck kids' games by turning them into venues for "development"–a sacred goal for the achievement-oriented.

Some steps are being taken to strip youth sports of the importance we've assigned them. The Washington Area Girls Soccer League recently ended its U-10 program, deciding that this age wasn't ready for competitive play. The National Capital Soccer League eliminated standings in the same age group, hoping to ease competitive pressure.

Coaches affiliated with national and state soccer groups are circulating a statement backing even more anticompetitive measures, including replacing tournaments for ages ten and younger with "jamborees" in which no champion is declared.

These coaches are not motivated by a politically correct aversion to competition. They believe an overemphasis on winning is stifling the development of US talent. Select leagues for young kids weed out players who later might have blossomed into stars, the coaches argue. Teams that focus on winning often tell kids, "Play within your abilities." Testing oneself or experimenting may lead to mistakes–and losses. It's no coincidence that America's top soccer players, the product of the most organized youth leagues in the world, are known for unimaginative play.

Still, the proposals have met with opposition, particularly among soccer clubs that make big money on tournaments. "It's like fighting the Civil War," says Gary Allen.

A year ago, i signed my son up for indoor soccer clinics on Sundays. I had coached Joe for two years in the Alexandria rec league, and we'd both had a good time. Why not continue in the winter?

The clinics were held at a gym 45 minutes from our house. The coaches did nothing but skill work each session; the kids never played a game. Occasionally, when Joe and his friends had to wait in lines to do a drill, they acted up. The coaches called them goof-offs.

In the spring after the clinics, Joe played soccer, but his heart wasn't in it. At season's end, he discovered a new passion–baseball.

This fall, I got a flier about a winter baseball clinic for kids seven and up. For $100, the flier promised, high-school coaches and ex-college players would deliver the best instruction, including video analysis of each child's hitting. "Sharpen your skills and have a great time," it read.

I threw the flier away. The three-day clinic began December 26, the day after Christmas. Joe spent that day sprawled on the floor, playing with his presents from Santa. *

How to Keep Child's Play Fun

Tips and Resources to Help Survive High-Pressure Sports


before signing a child up in a league, read its mission statement and talk to other parents. Try to gauge whether its competition level is right for your child.

Find out what kind of training the league offers to coaches. Many coach-licensing programs include basic instruction in the development of children as well as instruction in designing age-appropriate practices. Such training can be invaluable. Young children, for example, have short attention spans and thrive on practices that emphasize playfulness and movement.

Several area leagues are working with the Positive Coaching Alliance, a Stanford-based nonprofit group. PCA teaches coaching strategies designed to reward effort and learning as well as winning. It publishes tips for parents on how to support children in sports without pressuring them. See or call 202-338-4843.

If you can choose a team for your child, shop around. Talk to several coaches about their goals and schedules, and go to a practice to watch how they manage kids. The National Alliance for Youth Sports (800-729-2057; suggests questions to ask coaches.


the answer depends on the child, but there are signs to watch for. Ac-cording to the American Academy of Pediatrics, symptoms of overtraining include weight loss, anorexia, decline in performance, and sleep problems. Other experts say warning signs include increased irritability, rashes, headaches or stomachaches, and declining academic performance.

Few kids "burn out" on sports, says Daniel Gould, a sports psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. But certain kids may be predisposed to feel stress during competition. These include children who are perfectionists, have low self-esteem,or frequently worry about failure. "They can't put it to bed," says Gould. "It eats at them."

The experts offer simple advice: Listen to your kids. It's a sign of stress if younger children balk at practice or get teary. Also take note if older children want to skip practice or are unhappy about playing.

"When a kid says, 'I'm not going back to the wrestling room or theskating rink,' parents have to give it up," says Edward Masood, head of Montgomery County athletics. "They can't keep pressuring that kid."


several new books offer guidance.

The Young Athlete, by Dr. Jordan Metzl, discusses how to ease the pressure of youth sports and recognize when a child is doing too much. Metzl, cofounder of the Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes in New York City, also devotes chapters to the prevention and treatment of injuries.

Dr. Lyle Micheli, sports-medicine director at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital, looks at the pros and cons of youth sports in The Sports Medicine Bible for Young Athletes. His book also features a guide to common injuries and a chapter on health issues for girl athletes.

Former NBA first-round draft pick Bob Bigelow campaigns against elite teams, out-of-control parents, and pressure-filled sports in Just Let the Kids Play. His rhetoric boils over at times, but Bigelow offers good advice on organizing teams and adapting games for younger kids.