Juggling Youth Sports

How a sports-minded family with four children handles competing activities.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Russell and Denise Garlick have four children, ages 11 to 20. Each attends a different school, and all are really into sports. Like many American families, they are on the go constantly. A phone call to their home in the Boston suburb of Needham, Mass., often is answered by a recorded message.

For all their running around (via cars, carpools, and bikes) to games and practices, though, the Garlicks are careful not to let organized team sports rule their lives, as sometimes happens in other households.

During a Saturday morning conversation around their dining-room table, the Garlicks talk about the challenges of trying to keep it all in perspective.

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Mrs. Garlick, a registered nurse, is sensitive to not having her family placed on any kind of pedestal. "I don't want to make it sound like we're doing everything right, because sometimes it's great and sometimes it all falls apart." Still, there's much that merits attention here.

Take the weekly planning meeting. "Every Sunday after dinner we have a family meeting," says Mrs. Garlick, reaching for a large ring binder used to log each child's activities. It contains schedules for sports, music lessons, and Boy Scouts; notices about school activities; team rosters and phone numbers. Each child has a section.

"Everybody takes a turn in running the meeting and the first thing we do is compliment each other on something that happened during the past week," Mrs. Garlick explains.

After that, Andy (age 11, soccer, baseball, and basketball), Alex (13, football, baseball, and basketball), Beth (17, Special Olympics bowling and Challenger basketball and baseball), and Monica (20, running, Ultimate Frisbee, and helping coach a soccer team) review what's coming, including letting Mom know what school materials are needed.

"This helps to get in their heads what they have going during the week," Mrs. Garlick says, "plus it helps them understand what else is going on in the family."

Furthermore, says Mr. Garlick, a research chemist, it allows the family to prioritize.

"If we see that sports is going to take up the whole week," he notes, "we ask, 'What's wrong with this picture?' If we've got Boy Scouts Monday night, we've got to get home from practice early. It's good to see the whole week at one meeting as opposed to a piece at a time."

The Garlicks are active in scouting and work to fit in camp outs and Cub Scout and Boy Scout meetings. Mr. Garlick, in fact, served as Cubmaster to a 90-boy pack for several years and remains a den leader. Being a leader, he explains, is an advantage because he can arrange a schedule that fits with his family's.

"Sports is just one part of our life," he notes. "We have our family, sports, education, and scouts and church. We don't not do one for the other. We have to make some compromises."

If there's a tournament on Sunday morning, the Garlicks may skip church. "It's hard for them to participate in a weekend-long tournament if they play Saturday and not Sunday," Mr. Garlick says. "To really make a commitment to the team you have to make that compromise. That's not bad once a season."

To be sure, there are some pretty tough decisions to be made weekly when activities are in conflict. Ultimately the children make most of these on their own, with input from their parents, who may try to sway them if one child appears too overloaded with one activity.

A longstanding family rule helps with this balancing act: a single sport per child per season.

"It's hard," Mrs. Garlick says, "because you're asking a little person, who's 9 or 10, to choose a sport."

The parents, though, say this makes sense for two reasons: It doesn't overtax the family support structure and it encourages the youngster to become a full-fledged member of a team. Some youngsters are hard-pressed to achieve the latter as they split time between soccer and baseball in the spring or between basketball and hockey in the winter.

"These kids are constantly choosing which practices and games to attend," Mrs. Garlick says. "I've seen some children who end up just going to the games as if they were some kind of superstar. Those aren't the kind of athletes we wanted our children to be. To be a part of a team means going to all your practices and all your games."

* * *

"There's a great opportunity in sports for kids to learn how to be responsible for their actions and decisions," says Karen Partlow, who is the director of an educational program for coaches, parents, and sports administrators run by the American Sports Education Program.

Ms. Partlow is in agreement with the Garlicks' approach about committing to a team and letting young people assume some of the responsibility for making it work.

The challenge for adults when it comes to organized youth sports, says experts, is to help children identify what they like doing and not be afraid to let them switch - just not in midseason.

There's a tendency, says Mike Pfahl, a vice president at the National Alliance of Youth Sports, for parents to place too much emphasis on cultivating an adult work ethic in sports.

"Sports is playing, is fun, it's not intended to be work for kids," he says. "Sports can be a training ground for things that carry over to work, such as dedication, commitment, and stick-to-itiveness. Those are the kind of values you can gain from sports participation, but it's not supposed to be work."

Partlow, like the Garlick family, endorses variety in children's activities. "If they are more well-rounded I think that's good for the adults," she says. "The problem, however, is not in having a lot of sports experiences, it's having an overemphasis on winning. That's the No. 1 reason why we lose over 75 percent of our kids [from organized youth sports] every year by the age of 12. They're dropping out because there's too much pressure to win, too much pressure to perform."

* * *

Monica, the Garlicks' oldest child, played on a girls' lacrosse state championship team her senior year at Needham High School. (She is now a sophomore scholarship student in engineering at Northeastern University in Boston. A co-op student, she lives at home while working for Needham's engineering department, then moves back on campus when her academic studies resume.)

She was such a natural talent that she got put on the junior varsity high school basketball team as a freshman based solely on her athleticism. "But basketball never clicked for Monica," her mother remembers, and before long she was relegated to seldom-used reserve status.

In the Garlick home, one parent tries to make it to every child's game, and Mrs. Garlick regularly attended the jayvee basketball games with Andy.

"One day we got out to the car and Monica was pretty shaky," Mrs. Garlick says, relating a favorite story. "She had tears in her eyes and she said, 'I want to thank you for coming to my games all the time because I know you never get to see me play.'

"Andy, who was probably three or four at the time, said, 'Monica, we don't come to see you play, we come to see you.' I love that. We were going to be where Monica was. She didn't have to play for us."

Alex too has benefited from his family's unstinting support. Several years ago during a family vacation, he and his mother drove the five hours home so Alex could play in a baseball tournament. His team won two games, but lost the championship game. After the final out, rather than console him, his mother, uncles, and cousins stood around celebrating the moment. "All these people stood around telling him how proud they were that he played in the game," Mrs. Garlick recalls. " 'Let's go for pizza,'.the relatives said."

"I see a lot of kids looking dejected after they lose, "Mr. Garlick says., "and you look at their parents on the sidelines and they look dejected. We've just never had that attitude. There isn't time to dwell on the losses."

* * *

Few would disagree that playing sports is good for children. But what is a healthy time commitment to organized youth sports?

The National Alliance of Youth Sports sets forth a standard that it encourages parents, coaches, and league administrators to follow. It calls for a limit of three, one-hour practices a week for children through age 12, and for no more than four, 1-1/2-hour weekly practices through age 16.

The reason for this standard, says Pfahl, an alliance spokesman, is "there's this idea out there that more is better."

The escalation of time demanded by youth-sports coaches is what Bob Bigelow, a nationally known speaker and researcher on youth sports and former pro basketball player, likens to "the strategic arms race."

In Mr. Bigelow's view, this is absurd because practice does not guarantee success among prepubescent children. "I don't care if they spend 20,000 hours on a soccer field, we just don't know [how they will develop]," he says, citing his own career as a late-blooming basketball star. "To make a future assessment on a kid who is 12 is meaningless."

The tendency to stratify athletes at an early age by creating what Bigelow calls a caste system, with youngsters who make traveling, select, and all-star squads at the top, leads to two unfortunate developments.

It drives off children whose motor skills are slow to develop, even though they might come on like gangbusters later. "They'll be gone before we ever find out," Bigelow says.

Then, too, identifying stars too early creates prima donas who arrive at high school convinced they are blue-chippers. High school coaches often find these athletes a challenge.

* * *

Sports are a strong current in the Garlick home, but schoolwork, music practice (Alex plays the trumpet and Andy the trombone and piano), and other extracurricular activities aren't allowed to take a backseat. Making them all fit requires some sacrifices and one of them is a no-TV rule, which is in effect from Sunday night through Friday afternoon.

On the whole the parents believe sports participation has encouraged their children to use their time wisely. As parents, too, they have benefited. They've learned that a willingness to see the big picture - not just the momentary crisis - is a major asset.

Mrs. Garlick says she sometimes turns to her husband with this reminder, " 'These are the good ol' days.' It's a beautiful time in our life. To have the opportunity to stand still and watch your child in action is a wonderful thing."

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