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.

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.''

Figure skater Kathy Adams sees the need to maintain a certain distance from her coach. ''If you become too much of a friend with a coach it's hard to take criticism,'' she says. Restructuring home life

A child's sports career often requires major adjustments in a family's priorities and schedules.

In some cases family members may be separated as the child, perhaps accompanied by one parent, moves to another part of the country to train with a special coach.

''The hardest part for me is living away from home,'' says 14-year-old Tracy Butler, the Junior National women's gymnastic champion. A year ago Tracy left her family in Worthington, Ohio, to train in Allentown, Pa., with the Parkettes, a top private gymnastics team. This year she was the youngest member of the US women's gymnastic team at the Pan American Games in Venezuela, where she won a bronze medal in the balance beam competition.

Although she misses her parents and 11-year-old sister, for now her gymnastics career comes first. ''I take it one year at a time,'' she says.

In addition to financing the often staggering costs of a child's sports career, parents are an important source of emotional support.

''My mother is most involved in my diving. She takes me to practice and sticks by me all the time,'' says Brad Baell. ''My parents encourage me a lot. If I'm doing poorly at a meet they slap me on the back and tell me I still have a chance. They encourage me to keep going and do the best I can.''

Brad also appreciates the backing from his brother and sister. ''My brother is real supportive - he's excited and proud if I win something. My sister is the same way. It really makes you feel good when you can make your family proud of you and not just yourself.'' Lessons learned

Some young athletes have focused so narrowly on their sports career they have not developed in other ways. In most cases though, Ms. Greenspan has found many of these hard-driving younsters are multi-talented and can transfer lessons learned in sports to other aspects of their lives. Challenged early, they often learn to interpret success and failure better than their untried peers.

Some children ''can be very good in a sport pretty quickly,'' Ms. Greenspan notes. ''Then there's a line that separates the special from the exceptional. These are children who make a decision to commit their lives to a sport when the increments of improvement become smaller - you become a star but you are also aware of the sacrifices. The kids who realize that and still decide to make a run for the top must have exceptional emotional ability as well as exceptional talent.''

For some young athletes, attending a specialized sports academy can be instrumental in making the decision whether or not to continue. These schools offer a highly competitive atmosphere, combined with varying degrees of educational emphasis, where young people can hone their skills and test their abilities against other motivated youngsters.

Perhaps the best-known facility is Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which counts Jimmy Arias among its successes. This school steels youngsters for the professional circuit in a sport notorious for its extraordinary pressure even at the junior level. An equally disciplined but more educationally oriented academy is the Stratton Mountain School for skiers, run by headmaster Peter St. John in Vermont.

In these types of academies, ''It's not a normal situation. It's a very intense world centered around one thing,'' comments Ms. Greenspan. ''You do find out right away whether you can cut it or not. That can be a blessing.'' Opting out

If children decide to quit, the adjustment comes more easily if they have developed other options - and if they are not carrying their parents' aspirations on their shoulders, according to Ms. Greenspan.

Figure skater Kathy Adams says, ''My parents say if skating ever becomes a burden - if I'm not having fun - I should stop.''

At times Brad Baell has talked about quitting when challenged with learning a new dive. ''Brad has faced a great deal of fear over the years,'' says his mother. But when he talked about quitting, ''We realized it was the fear of a new dive - not whether he wanted to continue diving or not. Our position has been if he tried the dive and still wanted to quit when he came off the board he would have our blessing.''

So far that hasn't happened, but evaluating his commitment is an ongoing issue. ''We have had to come to terms with whether he is pleasing himself or pleasing us. We have had to sit down and talk it over as a family,'' says Mrs. Baell. ''If he doesn't want it, there's no value in it.''

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