Rethinking youth fitness (part 7)

Posted on January 25, 2016

(Last Updated On: April 6, 2016)

This is a seven part series.

Before closing this up, a reader left a poignant comment on the social circle post, regarding the expectations we have for athletes. Our exchange revolved more around those at the celebrity level (including musicians), but this is true once high school begins. Fitting with a theme of these posts again, the better the athlete, the more true this is. As well, the better the team, the more true this is.

My high school football team was very good. We were ranked number one in the state for a bit my sophomore year. We played in two state finals and one semi final. That garners attention.

We had Friday night curfews. 10pm. For a 1pm game the next day! We had a GPA standard higher than the school’s standard. We had practice on Thanksgiving. Teammates and I were in the paper routinely. Good or bad. Bad game? Everybody knew about it. Think about that. For most teenagers, the analogue would be a bad test. But you don’t get a bad test broadcasted to the town, county, or state you’re in. Athletes do.

In a state finals game, the running back of the opposing team was having the game of his life. At one point, he’s running and points at a player on the defense…then proceeds to run him over.

In that same state finals game, our quarterback fumbled the ball on the last drive to lose the game. He ran off the field, crying like crazy, immediately got in his car, and I’ve barely seen him since.

The first guy could not have been more embarrassed, and I’m not sure the second guy came to school the entire next week. In some towns, this enough to have issues being in that place forever. Where it’ll be hard to not have that moment brought up over and over…for something you did at 17 years old.

Get in trouble? Same thing. Often for doing things teenagers routinely do. One teammate I had skipped a class and subsequently got benched for that night’s game. Guess what? Everybody wants to know why that player isn’t on the field. When a contender for the state championship has something like that happen, it doesn’t just stay between kid, principal, and parent.

After I graduated, there was a whole ordeal over the quarterback being at some party, having a couple beers or something. Like, who cares 17 year old is having some beer? Oh, you’re a quarterback on a noteworthy team? Suddenly a lot of people care.

As I mentioned, in college, we were the first group of players who had to worry about any single photo taken of us popping up on Facebook. I’m sure being a good teenage athlete now and being on social media is a risky decision. I can only imagine the amount of crap you catch on there. When I was in high school, there were forums people would shit on various athletes. That’s only been magnified now.

Social media is a fun thing for most teenagers. It’s a liability when you’re an athlete. The better athlete you are, the bigger place you’re a part of, the more people are out there looking to tear you down. This extends to the collegiate and high school level. But nobody cares if the valedictorian had a couple beers.

Think about being in college or high school. Being a teenager and having to live up to these standards. When you’re psychologically only so mature at that age. (Many can’t handle this type of scrutiny as an adult!) Teenagers which are now having their games routinely televised (and not being paid anything for it!). 16 year olds who can have one moment forever remembered, in an environment -a playing field- where losing your cool is going to happen.

The only teenagers who routinely have this happen to them are the athletes.

An approach that’s probably ok

Some basic tents that seem to work, with the primary idea to right away not professionalize the activity-

  • Other than things like football, boxing, maybe hockey (can’t avoid repetitive head trauma in these sports), it’s more how you do it than whether you do it. So, there are mostly no issues with playing sports at a young age, but it should mainly be up to the kid. There’s no need to go out of the way to encourage them, and it’s perfectly fine if they never played a single sport.
  • If as a parent you are pushing your kid, wanting them to be more into things, wanting them to play in college because you did or didn’t, just stop. You can’t manufacture the mindset needed to get to a high level. Those who make it there have the motivation within. My first word was ball. My girlfriend wanted to pitch like she did. Tiger Woods has said over and over his dad never made him practice that much that young. He wanted to do it. Those who make it are born with an obsessive mindset. Pushing and pushing does not transform Joe Blow to Joe Awesome.
    • One exception here is those who are extremely gifted playing something not requiring too much skill. It doesn’t matter how gifted you are, you can’t be a top golfer without a ton of dedication. But you might be able to play center in the NBA with a so so work ethic, if you’re seven feet tall.
  • If sports are played, it should be multiple sports, or in the least not only one sport year round. It might be one sport a year, but for only that sport’s season, and you should be doing other physical activity the rest of the year.
  • Sports don’t take up the majority of the week. Maybe 2-3 days per week, max. This goes until high school at the earliest.
  • Encourage physical activity nearly everyday of the week. On the days which aren’t sports, workout, go for a walk, bike ride, roller blading, playing at the park with friends, whatever. But it should be something laying the foundation for activity habits in adult life.
  • Be very careful with multiple day tournaments or obsessive summer leagues.
    • The back to back games, and back to back days, are what are killer here. Nobody, not even a kid, can recover that quickly. We don’t expect maximal performance, multiple times, the same day, from any athletes…but children. It’s too much, and nobody, including you, will care how good you were as a 10 year old. You’ll care if you had Tommy John at 12 years old though.
      • It’s possible in something like softball or baseball, to get away with this type of stuff provided pitch counts are carefully monitored, because of how slow these sports are (if you’re not pitching). Doing this with soccer is a different story.
  • Zero Gatorade.
  • Football? Probably not.
    • Yes, I watch a ton of football. But I also enjoy boxing and the UFC. I wouldn’t want my kid doing those either. Would you? Would anybody? But I bet you don’t mind a cage match here and there.
  • Strongly encourage activities beyond sports, and friends outside of sports. Clubs, volunteering, part time job (once old enough), the things adults usually have to engage in.
    • If a kid does have an obsessive mindset, encourage looking into other aspects about the sport. This way you’re not being unsupportive, but you’re still fostering a backup plan. For example, learn about the physical preparation. Staying healthy. Exercise science. Once sports are over, a career in say, physical therapy or personal training, won’t be as much of a leap.
  • I’d prefer computer, management, space, math, sales, biology, marketing, whatever camp over any specific sport camp. At least until things got serious.
    • A camp which does a bunch of different sports is alright. Again, the idea being not to become too obsessed, too young, with being professional at one sport.
  • My dad did this with me on a regular basis: “What do you do if you blow your knee out?” That is, repeatedly mention sports are a precarious endeavor, and not the primary plan. If that pursuit starts to comes to fruition, we’ll address it then, but it probably won’t, and we will prepare for the more likely avenue. My parents beat into my head the importance of education, and I think it worked. But it did need to be beaten.
  • How do you know if you’re kid is good enough to warrant seriously looking at the sport? That things are getting serious? Other people will tell you. Recruiters will come calling (they’re legit when they come to your house), a coach will pull you aside, or it will be blatantly obvious e.g. your kid will be consistently playing with the older kids. My girlfriend started for her high school team as a freshman. My roommate and I were playing varsity football as sophomores. We were 15 year olds playing with 17 and 18 year olds.
  • If an injury occurs which is serious enough, like warranting surgery, that may be one of the best signs to be the end of the kid’s sporting career. Or at least cause a change in sport. Blown knee playing soccer? We’re done with soccer. We can maybe swim. Torn up elbow from baseball? Focus on basketball. Seeing people suffer the consequences of their teenage stubbornness, partially due to a lack of proper guidance, “don’t be a pussy,” is not something worth emulating. Kids nowadays have joints which may need to last 80+ years. Wearing them out before 20 doesn’t benefit them.

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