The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor's Complete Guide for Parentsby Jordan D. Metzl, Carol Shookhoff
Metzl (medical director, sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes) and Shookhoff, a writer specializing in education issues, want parents and young athletes to keep a sensible perspective on the benefits of organized sports. They offer information on preventing injuries, recognizing common injuries and evaluating their seriousness, and understanding nutritional and exercise needsas well as dealing with coaches and other parents, helping children handle team pressures, and recognizing when a child is doing too much.
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The Young Athlete
By Jordan D. Metzl and Carol Shookhoff
Little, BrownCopyright © 2002 Jordan D. Metzl, M.D. and Carol Suen Shookhoff
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Benefits of Youth Sports
MENS SANA IN CORPORE SANO (A SOUND MIND IN A SOUND BODY)
Sports are for fun, but they also offer benefits and lessons that carry over into all aspects of life.
When kids are asked why they play sports, here's what they say:
To have fun
To improve their skills
To learn new skills
To be with their friends
To make new friends
To succeed or win
To become physically fit
Kids usually get the benefits they seek from sports and more. Kids need attention and respect (in that order), but they have few ways to get them. What is unique about sports is that they offer kids an arena where they can earn attention and respect by exerting their natural abilities. Kids are good at sports because sports are essentially about speed, strength, coordination, vision, creativity, and responsiveness-the necessary physical attributes are the attributes of youth.
Given that athletics involves all aspects of the human being, it is not surprising that participants benefit in all of the areas they mention. According to researchers at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, kids who participate in organized sports do better in school, have better interpersonal skills, are more team oriented, and are generally healthier.
Participation in sports provides opportunities for leadership and socialization, as well as the development of skills for handling success and failure.
Moreover, when playing games, children learn how rules work. They see how groups need rules to keep order, that the individual must accept the rules for the good of the group, that rules entail a consideration of the rights of others. They also learn about competition, but within a restricted and safe system where the consequences of losing are minimized.
Benefits for girls have been of particular interest to researchers. The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports reports many developmental benefits of participating in youth sports for girls, including increased self-esteem and self-confidence, healthier body image, significant experiences of competency and success, as well as reduced risk of chronic disease. Furthermore, female athletes "do better academically and have lower school dropout rates than their nonathletic counterparts."
The Women's Sports Foundation lists many ways that sports specifically benefit female athletes. These include their being less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, less likely to begin smoking, more likely to quit smoking, more likely to do well in science, and more likely to graduate from high school and college than female nonathletes. Female athletes also take greater pride in their physical and social selves than their sedentary peers; they are more active physically as they age; they suffer less depression. There is also some evidence that recreational physical activity decreases a woman's chances of developing breast cancer and helps prevent osteoporosis.
I am convinced that sports offer a unique arena in which children can successfully exert their talents. The arena is unique for two reasons. First, sports engage the child as a complete human being: all facets-not just physical, but also social, cognitive, and psychological-are engaged harmoniously in striving toward peak fulfillment. Second, sports involve youths working in an ongoing community composed of their peers as well as their peers' families. Sports, that is, offer children an exhilarating, satisfying, rewarding way to participate in a larger world not generally accessible to nonathletes.
* Fitness. Kids who play sports develop general physical fitness in a way that's fun, and they establish lifelong habits for good health. This is particularly important at a time when obesity in the United States has reached epidemic proportions: the incidence of obesity has increased by more than 50 percent among America's children and teens since 1976 and continues to grow at a staggering rate!
* Stress relief. Sports allow kids to clear their minds of academic and social pressures, to literally run off the tension that's accumulated in their muscles. In the words of one patient, "If you play really hard, you feel better because playing takes your mind off things that bother you, and afterwards you can concentrate better." Most doctors recognize the positive mental effect of physical exertion, even though we're not sure exactly why this is so. I know that my ability to study in college and medical school was greatly enhanced when I ran during the day, and I'm not the only athlete to find this true. Many athletes get better grades in-season (theories posit the discipline and the need to manage time, along with an increased ability to concentrate). During exams, Duke University opens its gyms twenty-four hours a day to provide stress relief for its students.
* Mastery. Sports give kids a satisfying, enjoyable way to develop their own talents: through personal effort they get good at something they're interested in. Doing something well makes them feel good about themselves, but equally important, it teaches them about the process of how to improve and work more effectively. Learning a skill-to dribble left-handed, say, or to execute an effective second serve-entails a recognition that practice is essential and that improvement is incremental. The process of repetition teaches the athlete how to master a move and also how to experiment with different approaches to improve a skill. The feedback in sports is usually immediate and visible-does the ball go into the basket?-so that the athlete can change or repeat what she's doing and figure out how to get better. Not only that, the whole process of seeing practice lead to improvement gives kids a feeling of control, a feeling all too rare in their lives.
* Healthy habits. Because sports increase an awareness of one's body and how it responds to different stimuli and circumstances, sports help prevent drug and alcohol abuse. Most athletes value what their bodies can do and want to maintain those abilities. Being an athlete also gives kids an acceptable reason for telling their friends no to drugs, booze, and other high-risk, unhealthy behaviors. (Of course, not all athletes avoid drugs and alcohol.)
* Valuing preparation. Sports help kids learn to distinguish between effort and ability. Sports increase self-discipline and the awareness of the value of preparation because kids can see the difference in their performance.
Competitive athletes learn the importance of effort, being prepared (mentally and physically), and enlightened risk-taking. They see that raw physical talent is not always sufficient to win the game, but that preparation is essential. This includes mental preparation (staying focused) and physical fitness as well as practicing the plays with their teammates in team sports. They learn to evaluate risk versus reward. Another invaluable lesson is discovering that mistakes are part of learning; they signal that a particular approach is unsuccessful and you must try another. Kids also learn to deal productively with criticism as part of improvement and preparation.
* Resilience. Sports provide an unparalleled model for dealing with disappointment and misfortune. Young athletes learn to handle adversity, whether it's picking themselves up after losing a big game or not getting as many minutes as they wanted. They find ways to deal with losing and go on, because there's another big game next week or next year. They figure out what to do to get what they want for themselves. They put in extra time on fitness or work on specific weaknesses in their game (long-ball trapping, hitting to the opposite field, looking the ball into their hands).
Athletes also learn to deal with the physical and psychological effects of injury. I broke my jaw playing soccer and missed most of the season my junior year in high school. I went through the classic stages of grief, from "This can't be true" to ultimate acceptance. Two months of sitting out, waiting to heal, and dealing with physical and emotional pain was devastating. There were times early on when I sat in my bed whimpering from pain. But as time went on and my jaw began to heal, I somehow began to realize what almost all athletes in pain realize: the only person who is going to help you is yourself. You find the limits of what you can ask of yourself and know that you will deliver. This learning to get the best out of yourself carries over into all aspects of life. People can find their internal drive through training and hard work, but adversity really brings it out. In my case, I came back with stronger resolve. In my senior year I became an all-district soccer player and was propelled toward a college soccer career.
* Attitude control. Older teens learn that a confident attitude improves their performance, and that they have some control over their attitude. They learn to disregard comparative stats in preparing for an opponent and instead to adopt "attitude enhancers" such as visualization exercises, team or individual rituals, singing specific songs together, or having dinner as a team the night before the game. Some might call these superstitions, others, self-fulfilling prophecies, but they work.
* Leadership opportunities. Team sports offer kids a rare opportunity to serve as leaders. Kids can be in a position to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their various teammates and help to exploit their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. They can minimize conflicts among players. They can reinforce values-such as fair play, teamsmanship, hard work, mental preparation-by speaking up when appropriate and setting a good example. They can also take the initiative in arranging for team dress on game days (football players wear their jerseys to class, female basketball players wear their warm-up pants), organizing team dinners or team movie nights, and inviting teachers and administrators to their games.
* Identity and balance. Being part of a group is inordinately important to kids, and sports make kids feel like they belong, whether it's to the group of athletes in general or their team in particular. Sports also contribute to a teenager's sense of a stable identity with particular values. "I'm a football player" is a very different statement than "I play football." People are complicated, however; no individual is just one thing. It's better to encourage children-and adults-not to assume a single identity to the exclusion of all else.
* Time management. Young athletes learn to manage their time productively. They know they have to get their homework done, so they learn not to waste time (some of them even quit watching television and hanging out at the mall). They plan ahead, so that big school projects don't catch them by surprise. They even figure out they have to eat well and get a good night's sleep. Countless athletes, in school and the workplace, say that being an athlete taught them discipline that is invaluable in their lives on and off the field.
* Long-term thinking. Athletes learn the fundamental lesson of sacrificing immediate gratification for long-term gain. This is the basis for personal success as well as for civilization in general, and no lesson can be more valuable.
Sports are a social activity. Team sports are obviously done with other people, but even individual sports are often done as a team (tennis, golf, track). All sports, however, are intended to be performed in front of others, and the social ramifications are many. Here are some of them.
* Relationships with other kids. Athletes develop relationships with their teammates. For boys, sports are a primary, and unfortunately sometimes the sole, way of socializing with others. In many schools and communities, nonathletic males find it difficult to develop a social network at all. For girls, who according to the feminist theorist Carol Gilligan tend to define themselves through their relationships rather than their achievements, sports offer yet another way to make friends and create an alternate peer group. According to Mike Nerney, a consultant in substance abuse prevention and education, multiple peer groups are always a good idea for teens, who have an intense need for inclusion and belonging, but who can also be volatile, cruel to each other, and foment destructive behavior as a group. Having a refuge when relations go wrong with one group can alleviate a great deal of stress and offer an alternative for kids who feel uncomfortable or frightened by peers who engage in high-risk activities.
* Teamwork. On a team, kids learn about cooperation, camaraderie, give-and-take. They learn that while their natural position might be wide receiver, the team needs a cornerback, so they sacrifice their personal desires and play defense. They learn that you don't have to like someone in order to work together toward a common goal. They also discover that you can work for people you don't respect and still be productive, improve your skills, and have fun. A team is a natural environment in which to learn responsibility to others: you can't stay out carousing the night before a game; sometimes you need to pass up a party in order to show up and play well.
Kids learn these lessons from their teammates and, most important, a coach who encourages the good of the team over the needs of an individual player. This attitude is sometimes rare in today's sports climate, where what's glorified is to "be the man." I think the earlier the message is instilled about the good of the larger whole, the better for kids in the long run.
* Diversity. Organized sports sponsored by clubs or youth leagues not affiliated with schools offer players an opportunity to meet a variety of kids from different backgrounds. Students from public, private, and parochial schools come together in a common enterprise, crossing socioeconomic and ethnic lines, so that over time all players broaden their sense of how other people live. The genuinely multicultural environment is of tremendous importance in our polarized society. Kids play on the same team, wear the same uniform, share the same objectives and experiences. Sports are a great equalizer: rich or poor, black, brown, or white, are irrelevant. What counts is talent and heart.
Excerpted from The Young Athlete by Jordan D. Metzl and Carol Shookhoff Copyright © 2002 by Jordan D. Metzl, M.D. and Carol Suen Shookhoff. Excerpted by permission.
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