My childhood was a big mishmosh of amateur sporting ventures. There was baseball, basketball, football, hockey, golf, soapbox racing (in a Radio Flyer that often tipped), stickball, wiffle ball . . . well, just about everything. I’d wear hand-me-down athletic clothes from a cousin (always two sizes too big), suit up in all of the pertinent equipment (hockey goalie being the favorite), appropriate some of my parents’ garden equipment to make goals, sticks, or bats, and then do battle (most often in a recognizably mediocre fashion). I cheated on the base paths. I faked injuries when my sisters had breakaways. I took errant shots on my dad in goal. And I loved it. There was some frustration when I didn’t excel, but overall, sports were the delightful content of friendships and the real substance of summers. But, such an approach to sport is not always the case. Sometimes, professional athletics begin at a surprisingly young age.
A recent article in the Times details the injurious effects of an overly-focused single-sport athletic regimen when commenced too early: “The heightened pressure on child athletes to be, essentially, adult athletes has fostered an epidemic of hyperspecialization that is both dangerous and counterproductive.”
The article limits itself to discouraging hyperspecialization at too early an age for the purpose of increasing general athletic literacy, promoting a more balanced development of motor skills, and avoiding injury. Basically, holding off makes you a better all-around athlete so that you can specialize later on in life with better results. While true, I don’t think that the proposal goes far enough. The very fact that young athletes can grow weary and ultimately sustain permanent bodily damage in the pursuit of highly specified leisure represents a broader misconception of sports. In short, sports have become work and ceased to be sport.
I have heard a bevy of arguments for promoting sports among youth, many of which I find convincing. As training grounds of virtue, sports are excellent tools for the inculcation of discipline, fostering of healthy habits, and formation of prudence. Also, as a venue for discovering of healthy activities, many sports open the door to what become long-standing patterns of bodily maintenance.
But when sports are dislocated from a life with a proper balance between work, study, and more contemplative forms of leisure, they can become pernicious. Though it’s true that sports can open up opportunities for those who would not otherwise have had access to college, to expect athletics to act as the vehicle, which propels one into family, work, and material success, seems grievously misguided.
To achieve standout status in sports will often demand considerable devotion and some modicum of sacrifice in other areas of life. Thus, more important things are subordinated to what is presumably less important (sports), in hopes that we can subsequently enjoy a greater share of these goods later on. But this sort of delayed material gratification rarely pans out in practice.
A very small percentage of college athletes go pro (1.7 percent of football players, 1.2 percent of basketball players, 1.0 percent of soccer players). And for those who don’t, the hope is that sports will have helped to propel them through college, thus enabling these student-athletes to acquire the academic tools for future success. But, research shows that sports, in fact, tend to diminish academic performance. So, while they may make some academic advancement available to those for whom it would otherwise have been inaccessible, does not the perpetuation of this disorder make more seductive the lie that young athletes should devote all their attention to the vehicle to admission (sports) over and above the very substance of their future flourishing (the education in itself)?
So, I say, let sports be sports. Undoubtedly, kids will need encouragement to persevere in a sport that they might otherwise give up through indolence, but it shouldn’t go beyond that. Otherwise, the “first days” will flee far too quickly and the grind of work set in before children have really learned to play.