How seriously sports are taken varies around the country, but 10 seems to be the universal age of demarcation. In Garden City, N.Y., the Little League keeps no standings for ages five through nine but introduces that unforgiving metric for its 10-year-olds. In the Kalispell ( Mont.) Pee Wee Baseball League 10-year-olds are consigned to "minor league" play except those who, in the cold and determinist words set forth on the organization's website, "are ready."
But how can you tell who is ready?
WHAT'S GOING ON INSIDE A 10-YEAR-OLD?
Ten-year-olds aren't miniature teenagers. They're preadolescent tweens, and until puberty sets in, it's difficult to predict which ones will blossom physically and break from the pack. At 10 Michael Jordan was still a dozen years from becoming one of the five best basketball players on earth; in junior high he was best at baseball and football, and at 15, as a high school sophomore, he stood only 5'9". Nonetheless, says former NBA forward Bob Bigelow, author of Just Let the Kids Play and perhaps the most pointed provocateur in the lively debates over youth sports, "Many adults have the misguided belief that looking at a kid at this stage gives an indication of what he'll be like down the road: 'My gosh, wait till we see him at 14, 18, 22!' But there are so many late-developing kids, and so many get frozen out by the process."
A fully developed young athlete might wind up with a temperament for golf, not basketball, or with the perfect distance runner's body, not a tight end's. Yet premature specialization can foreclose the possibility of finding that out and perhaps sour a kid on sports entirely. "Specialization should come after medical school, not when you're 10," says Thompson. "It leads to heightened expectations from parents and burnout in kids." The American Academy of Pediatrics formally opposes specialization before a child reaches puberty, usually at 11 for girls and 12 for boys. Even former Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr., that icon of devotion to his chosen sport, joins them (box, page 68). "My advice to every 10-year-old baseball player is to put down your glove at the end of the season and try something else," says Ripken, whose 10-year-old son, Ryan, also plays soccer and basketball. Ryan's dad believes that the balance and footwork that soccer requires, and the explosiveness and hand-eye skills that basketball demands, transfer easily to baseball.
There are exceptions, famous ones. But prodigies such as Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, whose early dominance held up beyond puberty, play individual sports, in which the cognitive challenge differs from that in team sports. Many sports psychologists and physical educators believe that before age 12, children simply aren't ready to perform the complex sequences of skills that many team sports require, just as calculus would flummox a kid still struggling with long division. Think about the movements and hand-eye skills that must be strung together to turn a pivot at second base for a double play. Or the welter of options facing a young basketball player who has received a pass as defenders converge on her, and as coaches, parents and even teammates shout often-conflicting advice. Or what sports sociologist Jay Coakley calls "the beehive effect" in youth soccer, in which all the worker bees swarm after the queen with the ball, spacing and positioning be damned—a common scene that tends to drive parents and coaches nuts. Perhaps it wouldn't if the adults reminded themselves that a typical 10-year-old shouldn't be expected to do much else.
Still many parents want to know whether their 10-year-old has a future. "They ask me at seven, eight, all the way up to 14, 'Is my child wasting his time in his sport?' " says Paul Musser, a travel-team basketball coach and camp director in South Florida. "I always ask them to clarify that, and it invariably comes down to, 'Are they going to get a scholarship?' And that to me is mind-boggling."
Musser cites one of his fourth-grade basketball players, whose dad, a basketball coach himself, enrolled him in fifth-grade travel-team ball. But as a result of the pressure he felt, the boy simply didn't show up. "That's the most dangerous thing about putting too much pressure on them when they're 10," says Musser. "By 12 they're not playing anymore. At 14 they can get into trouble when they're not playing sports."
Ditter is treating a young athlete from an upper-middle-class family who has just turned 11. For about six months this child had gone on a stealing binge, lifting wallets, cellphones and Palm Pilots from teammates, coaches, even a teacher. It turned out the child desperately wanted to please his father, who was extremely vocal on the sideline. "What came out was the tremendous pressure this kid felt he was under because of sports," Ditter says. "It was almost as if this boy was saying to himself, 'I can't legitimately win, so I'll steal.' He breaks down in tears and talks about how he hated himself because he could never feel he was good enough. He's doing much better now, not stealing anymore, but he has a tough decision: Does he want to remain in that competitive environment?"
If youth sports can have so much influence on the 10-year-old psyche, it can also disrupt the development of the 10-year-old body. Dr. Lyle Micheli, director of sports medicine at Children's Hospital Boston, used to see a steady stream of acute traumatic injuries like broken arms and ankle sprains. Now he's treating more and more repetitive stress injuries, particularly a disorder called osteochondritis dissecans (OCD). It's similar to a stress fracture, but it affects only the joint surface. And the growth plates located at the joint surfaces are essential to the body's healthy maturation. "Our sports medicine clinics are packed with kids with this condition, which wasn't the case 10 to 15 years ago," Micheli says. He recently encountered OCD in a 10-year-old football player, while treating him for a torn anterior cruciate ligament. With the growth plate in the injured leg affected, surgeons will arrest the development of the healthy leg to forestall a permanent discrepancy in length.