Young athletes: hitting their stride in a competitive life
At 3:30 a.m., 15-year-old Kathy Adams rolls out of bed and starts to get dressed. By 4 a.m. Kathy, her mother, and her younger sister leave their home in Walnut Creek, Calif., and drive to a skating rink about an hour away.Skip to next paragraph
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Kathy, the Junior National women's figure-skating champion, skates from 5 to 11:30 in the morning. After her workout her father picks her up and drives her to school, where she takes two courses. Then she heads home to do some independent study and have dinner. By 7:30 she is in bed.
For many children, commitment to a sport is an enriching experience. For others, it can also become an all-consuming pursuit excluding other aspects of their lives.
Although her training schedule doesn't leave much free time for friends or other activities, ''I've never really had it so I don't miss it at all,'' says Kathy, who is preparing for the Junior World competition to be held in Japan in December. ''The reward is the satisfaction I get from training hard and doing well in competitions.''
Some young athletes feel the sacrifice more keenly. ''I used to feel like I missed out on everything because of my diving,'' says 13-year-old Brad Baell from Moultrie, Ga., who won the 1-meter springboard competition at the Junior World diving championship held in Hamilton, New Zealand. ''But it turns out I'm able to do things that most kids in this county aren't doing. That changed my mind about it.''
Increasingly, talented children are chalking up impressive success records in both amateur and professional sports. They have the opportunity to travel, meet interesting people, and gain public recognition for their hard work. Inspired by these young athletes in the limelight, more children - and their parents - aspire to be stars.
''The prevailing attitude is to get our kids involved earlier and earlier,'' says Emily Greenspan, a former competitive skater and author of ''Little Winners: Inside the World of the Child Sports Star'' (Boston: Little, Brown).
This trend may be influenced in part by the USSR and eastern European countries, where children are chosen and groomed for a particular sport at an early age. According to Ms. Greenspan, research has not confirmed whether or not competitors gain an edge by starting at the earliest possible age. ''Physically and emotionally there are a lot of unknowns,'' she says. Internationally, ''I think the danger is the competitiveness to beat each other to the starting block.''
In towns across the US, many children are enrolled in organized sports activities as soon as they can throw a ball or hold a hockey stick, sometimes as early as age 3. In some cases Ms. Greenspan sees adults ''programming a child for success at a time when a child should just be running around and having a good time.
''I believe strongly children should not be placed in competitive situations too early,'' she continues. ''They should have time to develop their skills and self-confidence first.'' Progression of a child's career
Each sport has its particular timetable, however, and there is a critical period during which a child must establish some basic skills if he or she hopes to proceed to the highest level of the sport. Figure skating, for example, involves a gradual acquisition of skills and requires an early start.
Initially, a child's coach or an athletic parent may see signs of great promise in a young athlete. But it is difficult to know if that talent will remain an advantage over a long period of time, says Ms. Greenspan. If a child shows outstanding ability and a desire to develop it, the challenge for parents is to encourage the child without pushing.
When choosing a first coach, she recommends finding an instructor who is enthusiastic and positive regardless of the results. As time goes on, different coaches are often needed for different stages of development in a child's abilities. As training becomes more intense, it can be difficult for parents to know how much monitoring to do or when to yield to a coach's judgement.
Brad Baell's mother, Leslie, says, ''There are bound to be disagreements with a coach about what is best. But somehow we have always been able to come to an agreement.''
According to Ms. Greenspan: ''If you have a parent who is good at the sport there can be some input, but in general it's better for the coach to be in control of the training. The problem comes when a coach takes over the personal, social, and training aspects of a child's life and becomes sort of a god.''