Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Squeezing the Love Out of Sports – and Life

Parents can embrace the sports their children play so much they suffocate their love for the games.

kids-and-sportsRon Turker, a Portland pediatric orthopedic surgeon and a dad, wrote an op-ed appearing in the New York Times that described parents who became upset when he told them their 13-year-old soccer-playing son had torn his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

The parents, both wearing the soccer jerseys of their son’s junior team, told Dr. Turker their son was a soccer phenom and couldn’t afford to take off six months to repair a damaged knee. He recalls how the parents and their hobbling son left his office in search of a second opinion – and maybe a miracle cure.

Turker says this isn’t an isolated example. More parents are applying more pressure on their children to excel in sports, as if their financial future depended on it. Despite wanting to please their parents, many children feel overwhelmed and lose the zest to play what we euphemistically call “the game.”

This phenomenon isn’t limited to sports. Parents are pushy in other areas too – drama, modeling, Boy Scouts, chess.

And if they aren’t pushing a single activity, sometimes they are pushing a dizzying array of activity. Children sometimes don’t have time to wander into the backyard and play an imaginary game with imaginary friends because they are being hustled from one organized activity to another.

Turker speculates some parents push their athletic kids in the ambitious hope of winning a college scholarship. But it’s just as likely parents feel an obligation to keep their kids busy to bypass an increasing set of temptations that can derail a young life. They want to bond with their child and see him or her succeed.

medium_3421193247-300x226In addition to squeezing the love out of a sport – or any activity, parents run the risk of contributing to a kid’s sense that he or she needs to be doing something or face being bored. Constant motion is good. Having to think up something to do is bad.

A hectic schedule can replace a robust imagination. Children struggle to remember where they left their bats and gloves instead of daydreaming and creating memories at play.

These days, kids don’t play. They play sports. And there is a big difference.

There are talented young athletes who need to concentrate on a sport to reach their potential. But even then, their athletic development requires some life balance. An injury may interrupt progress toward a sports goal, but it can be a period of reflection and time to develop new interests. A serious injury down the line can wipe out a dream, with nothing left to replace it.

Mike Simmons, one of my childhood pals, was a gifted athlete. His high school football coach called him a boy in a man’s body.

I went from lousy to average by playing football, basketball or baseball with Mike everyday. But our touch football games, three-on-three driveway basketball games and backyard Wiffle-ball home run derbies were as much for fun as sport. We both competed on teams – he was an all-state halfback, I wrestled and we were the shortstop-second base combination through high school. Neither of us lost our love for the sports we played because they were our oysters; we weren’t their pearls.

Parents need to step back, take a deep breath and put childhood sports into perspective. Some children need a little nudge. Most need some space. Most important, realize the games aren’t life or death.

After winning a scholarship to play football at the University of Colorado, Mike developed cancer. He died before turning 21, proving there is a lot more to life than sports. There’s life.


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