"There's some evidence that excessive running and pounding on the growth plates may affect the overall growth of a child," says Micheli. "We don't know how much is enough or too much, but we recommend that kids between 10 and 14 not run more than three miles a day. There's an old saying: No horse ever rode itself to death until there was a rider on its back."
WHAT DO ADULTS WANT FROM YOUTH SPORTS?
The short answer is: far too often, more than they have any right to expect. When its 2001 report called youth sports "a hotbed of chaos, violence and meanspiritedness," the National Summit on Raising Community Standards in Children's Sports wasn't referring to some Lord of the Flies scenario in which kids are running amok without adult supervision. Nor are children responsible for the athletic landscape in South Florida, where youth football programs have become feeders for the high school powerhouses and a promising seven-year-old will be scouted and "signed" to practice but not play on what one disgusted parent calls "prepubescent taxi squads." Says Thompson, "If a child has specialized in one sport or played on select teams, she has seen a lot of adult behavior that clearly demonstrates that this isn't 'just for fun,' as adults have been saying. The unguarded reactions of parents on the sidelines, the criticism of performance, the shouting at refs—it all tells kids that this is serious stuff. No child misses the message."
Remarkably, a child might still be able to override that message. After a recent youth soccer game in which he failed to make a critical save, 10-year-old Adam Weinberger of Bethesda, Md., was approached by the father of a teammate. "He said, 'You should have gotten that one,' " Adam recalls. " 'It's O.K. But you should have gotten it.' " How did Adam react? "I was just—I really didn't think he had any idea what he was talking about."
But far more often kids hang on the words of parents and coaches. "Adults will emphasize competition because that's what's fun for them," says Martha Ewing, an associate professor in sports psychology at Michigan State. "Once they get the skills, kids will want to compete too, but adults want them to compete now. So they put their kids in a higher league and separate them from their friends, which may not be what children want."
Coaches deserve their share of blame too. In doing the reporting for his forthcoming The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting, author Dan Doyle found 10 to be the age at which travel-team coaches begin to exert pressure to specialize in their sport. "It's quite common for a coach to say, 'If you don't commit to our travel team, you'll be left in the dust by those who do,' " says Doyle. "Of course that statement is fraught with error, but it does happen often." Travel-team soccer coaches are notorious for this, particularly in the spring, when travel soccer is blamed for declining participation in baseball.
Indeed, Ripken can instantly separate the kind of youth baseball coach he prefers from the kind who is likely to turn kids off the game: "If you want to teach kids to hit, you tell them, 'Wait for a good pitch to hit.' If you want to win, you tell them, 'I want you to take until you get two strikes'—but in the end, what have you got? You haven't taught them how to hit, only how to draw a walk and run the bases."
WHAT DO KIDS WANT FROM YOUTH SPORTS?
Softball, basketball, time for fan
I can't wait to see everyone
Winning or losing I don't care
It's just fan to play every year
I get nervous before the game
But win or lose, I'm still the same
Play your hardest all the time
But don't take it too serious, everything will be fine
If we win, we don't brag
If we lose, we don't act sad
All these sports are true to me
Having fun is up to thee.
—SPORTS EVERY YEAR, by Lorie Borelli of Orange, Conn., written at age 10