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Schools abandoning sports, part II

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In Mark Hyman’s “Until It Hurts,” (already reviewed here), there’s an interesting bit of comment about parents and private interests taking over competitive sports when schools seemed less committed to them.

As I read it, I was thinking about all the discussions about statewide cuts in high school sports schedules and other pullbacks from varsity sports occurring during the current recession, in an environment where private interests like AAU and clubs are already siphoning away the elite athletes.

Except that Hyman was writing about the 1930s.

But it wasn’t the Depression and ensuring school sports cutbacks that gave private interests like American Legion Junior League baseball (born in 1926) and Pop Warner Football (born in 1929 as the Junior Football Conference) an opening to exploit. It was educators’ distaste for how competitive school sports was becoming. They decided it would be better to de-emphasize varsity sports in favor of intramurals — an idea I’ve proferred on a few occasions on this here blog.

Hyman approvingly quotes sports historian and coaching teacher Rainer Martens calling this decision a “gigantic blunder.”

“Ironically, educators suddenly found themselves no longer leading the movement they had begun. Instead of well-trained professionals guiding the sports programs of children, well-meaning but untrained volunteers assumed leadership roles. Sadly, educators were left on the sidelines shouting their unheeded warnings and criticisms,” writes Martens in his seminal (June 1978) book Joy and Sadness in Children’s Sports.

Of course, as schools got back on the sports train, overemphasis on winning was (and is) endemic there, too. But schools at least have to hold their players to academic and other eligibility standards, and limits on practices and games allow for more balanced lives and less potential for overuse injuries than hard-core club sports.

So do these cutbacks mean private organizations will get an even greater foothold on youth sports?

It’s tough to say right now — plenty of private organizations are noting declines in players or upturns in requests for financial assistance because of the current recession.

But the bigger, longer-term danger for schools that want to be taken seriously as a place for sports is that their cutbacks highlight how anyone wanting a scholarship or pro career should seek assistance elsewhere.

As a school cuts back music, would its top musicians not seek opportunities elsewhere? As a school cuts back theater, would not anyone dreaming of an actor career not seek opportunities elsewhere? If a school cuts back on academic programs, doesn’t it risk losing students to private schools or home-schooling?

I don’t have empirical numbers to prove that any of these trends hold. It just seems logical to me that if you’re already diffident about whether the high school soccer team is worth your time, especially when college coaches (as they do in Hyman’s book) make it clear all they scout is club soccer, it’s one more reason to leave varsity sports in favor of private programs.

Is this another gigantic blunder?

I don’t think so. As Hyman wrote, this cat already was let out of the bag in the 1930s. And anyone seeking elite play is already trained from an early age to look outside of school — to programs that, depending on their funding, might have better-trained coaches than the school can offer.

It might be time for schools to look at athletics as something more akin to intramurals — to find ways to get more students involved, both to help with the national obesity rate but also to give an outlet for kids who are never going to play travel ball. Again, we heed the words of Colorado football coach Dan Hawkins: “Go play intramurals, brother.”

I review until it hurts. I mean, “Until It Hurts.”

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Mark Hyman’s “Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids,” is a concise (140 pages) look at how, well, America’s obsession with youth sports is harming our kids. It was an interesting read, and I must give Hyman some credit for his taste in blogs.

It’s easy to react to Hyman’s book by demanding that the entire parent/coaching/merchandising establishment be rounded up and shot for the child abuse they call youth sports. But I didn’t have that reaction, in part because I’m a heartless bastard, and in part because I was a history minor. (The two might be related.) Instead, I found snippets that were telling about why all this crazy sports parenting might not be so crazy after all.

Hyman opens his book talking about looking at a picture of his son Ben at 18 months old out in the snow with a T-ball set. “Whose idea was it to hone the swing of a toddler in the dead of winter? Mine. What was I thinking? I wish I had an answer.” This guilt is a running theme as Hyman exorcises his own demons of Ben needing arm surgery as a teenager after a series of coaches, including himself, pitched him too much. The book ends with Ben have a grand old time pitching on a college club team, no adults coaches to be found.

Hyman has plenty of other stories of athletes burned out, mentally and physically, by specializing in a sport from an early age, pushed by adults to succeed. Did you know, for example, that Michael Phelps’ sister Whitney was the original Olympic hope of the family, until her body burned out by age 16?

cover-of-until-it-hurts1Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I would have loved to have read a lot more about the history of organized youth sports, and how it evolved. It seems pretty clear that adults from day one had purposes other than just fun and games; usually it had something to do with preparing for war. There’s great stuff in the book like how Little League Baseball, by 1955, had frozen out Carl Stotz, who only founded LLB in 1939. He had the temerity to question the wisdom of an LLB World Series.

An interesting history as well would have talked about something not quite so youth sport-y, but something that drives the nuttiness we see today — how the demands of college recruiters and the money to be made in pro sports has changed the youth sports dynamic.

While old-time coaches like UCLA volleyball coach Al Scates and Hawaii baseball coach Les Murakamai speak out against the year-round specialization that provides the Hurts of the book, newer coaches like Quinnipiac women’s soccer coach Dave Clarke refuse to look at any player who hasn’t survived the rigors of club soccer. To him, school soccer is, and I paraphrase, for losers.

Hyman lays out the overwhelming odds against your kid not getting a college scholarship, much less going pro. (In most nonrevenue sports, few athletes are getting scholarships of any kind. That’s why you always see a few football players on the baseball team or track team.) But you’re not going to have a chance if your kid doesn’t specialize early and aim for that elusive scholarship. Given how colleges recruit and who pros sign, parents (and their children) who go down this road are not crazy. They’re making a rational decision based on the available evidence.

It’s like the lottery — you don’t win if you don’t play. Like the lottery, if you win, you win huge. But if you fall short, you have a lot of regrets and money pissed down the toilet. Hyman’s book focuses on how much is being pissed away, and how adults are squeezing the bladder. However, there’s still a book to be written to explain, in further detail and with less author’s guilt, how we got here.

(Oh, and a personal note to Mark Hyman, in case he reads this — don’t feel guilty. Like any parents, you made the best decisions you could with the information you had on hand. Plus, who doesn’t get caught up in their kids playing a sports, especially when they’re good? It’s nerve-wracking to watch you kid out there alone, especially as a pitcher, in control of everything when you’re not. As for that picture, my daughters dragged bats and balls out in the dead of winter when they were 18 months old. I suspect the idea to have Ben hit off a tee at that age and that time was not all yours.)

“Until It Hurts” excerpt on SI.com

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cover-of-until-it-hurtsMark Hyman of Youth Sports Parents has a new book out called “Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids.” For example, youth sports turns children into future spree killers. Wait, that’s Mark Durm, not Mark Hyman. Anyway, an excerpt, dealing with overuse injuries, is on SI.com. (Why overuse injuries occur is because parents want their kids someday to be featured on every other article on that site.)

I’ve got a copy reserved at my local Borders, and not just because Mark Hyman recently referred to this humble blog as “one of my fave youth sports blogs!!!!!!!!” OK, I added the exclamation points (or, excitment marks, as my son’s kindergarten is teaching him), but Hyman did say “fave.” I’ll have a review next week sometime.

Based on the excerpt, I’m encouraged. Mainly, because it looks like a well-reported and well-thought out piece of journalism, and not a guilt-ridden screed based on Hyman’s stomach churn about a pitching injury suffered by his son. Certainly the reason any of us who aren’t pervs or Clark Francis get interested in youth sports issues is through our own kids, and I suspect Hyman’s interest spiked when his own son got hurt. But the fault I find with most youth sports writing is that it’s too personal. That happens because of someone’s own bad experience as a kid, or come-to-Jesus moment as an adult with kids about the true nature of youth sports.

I look forward to reading the book. I’m curious if he ever talked to Mike Marshall, former major-league pitcher turned pitching guru. I emailed back and forth once with Marshall for a story I did for NBCSports.com on the use of technology in trying to reduce pitching injuries. Let’s just say that while Marshall has a sharp, PhD-certified mind, his ego might be the healthiest thing about him. He certainly has no love lost for Glenn Fleisig, whom I also talked to for my story, and who is a subject of the Hyman excerpt at SI.com.

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