ALONG with nesting finches, budding daffodils, and migrating salamanders, spring brings a familiar pattern on the sports field.
It all starts when mom and dad sign up Junior to play his or her -- or perhaps their -- sport of choice. If the child shows promise, he's picked for a touring team, and mom and dad turn their lives upside down in a swirl of daily practices, out-of-town competitions, and endless talk about strategy and winning.
What's wrong with this picture? Plenty, says Bob Bigelow, a National Basketball Association player in the late 1970s. (He was with the Boston Celtics briefly.) He's father of two boys (aged 2 and 7) and well-versed in the pitfalls of introducing competitive sports into a child's life.
Bigelow likes to think of himself as an ''emissary'' to adults working with budding athletes, and has advised thousands of parents in his native New England, where he recently shared his message with parents and coaches in Lincoln, Mass.
Since his brief stint on the basketball court, Bigelow has spent hundreds of hours studying the effects of organized youth sports, which he says have taken off in the past 20 years. Each year, he notes, the pool of players gets younger. He's discovered with dismay that some children spend more hours shuttling to and from competitions at faraway skating rinks, ball fields, or tennis courts than they spend learning to read.
While Bigelow won't advocate a ban of all early-age athletics, he urges parents and coaches to keep team play in perspective, promote fun and individual progress over winning, and ''let kids be kids.''
Before his high school years, Bigelow enjoyed frequent pick-up basketball games in driveways and playgrounds. Adults were scarce, and his own parents were more interested in his math abilities than his shooting skills. He's convinced that this pressure-free atmosphere contributed to his later success.
It's a whole new ball game these days, says Bigelow, who cites ''a 20-year inexorable tide'' of organized youth sports.
On the plus side, it has brought increased athletic opportunities for girls. It has also, in today's ''neighborless society,'' helped connect people within their communities, he says.
An ideal program today could teach meaningful lessons in teamwork, fair play, sharing, discipline, and social skills, Bigelow says. But it must ''meet the age-appropriate needs of all children,'' he says.
He speaks of his own eye-opening experience teaching a highly strategic ''pick and roll'' basketball clinic to eight- and nine-year-olds.
''The kids looked lost,'' he says. Puzzled, Bigelow consulted books like ''Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies,'' by Jay J. Coakley (1994), and learned that a child under the age of 12 cannot grasp the meaning of strategy or understand his or her role on a team.
CHALLENGING the trend of signing kids on to organized youth sports, Bigelow advises parents to avoid elite, traveling teams until their child turns 12 or 13. Before that age, these teams only serve to shatter the self-esteem of those who are rejected, boost egos of the parents whose children are chosen, and promote player ''burn out.''
As for winning, Bigelow insists it must be put in perspective. ''I wish every parent could attend or volunteer at a Special Olympics event,'' he says. ''There, every child gets a high-five and a hug. Their motto is, 'Let me try to win, but if I cannot, let me be brave.' ''
Bigelow has found that athletic prowess in the years leading up to puberty is meaningless as an indicator of ability. As bodies change, so do skills.
Michael Jordan, for example, was cut from the varsity basketball team in 10th grade, and later soared to the top, becoming arguably the best basketball player in the world. Conversely, many pre-teen superstars are only average athletes in their late teens.
Although surrounded by hordes of parents and coaches who are big fans of little competitors, Bigelow is not alone in his theories. Elementary-school teachers whom he polled agreed that youths shouldn't join elite, traveling teams until about seventh grade. Another of Bigelow's sports bibles, ''Sportswise,'' by Dr. Lyle J. Micheli and Mark D. Jenkins (1990), suggests keeping children out of the traveling, highly competitive sports whirlwind until at least age 14. He also quotes the ''early ripe, early rot'' ideas of David Elkind in ''The Hurried Child'' (1989).
In Bigelow's hometown of Winchester, Mass., which he calls an ''overheated soccer town,'' it's not uncommon for parents to shuttle their second-graders to communities 30 miles away for three-day tournaments on holiday weekends.
Ashley Stevens, who coaches these second-graders, says traveling games are only an ''experiment,'' at this point, and that he follows this guideline: If a child cries after a loss, he or she isn't ready. So far, not a tear has been shed. ''I'm impressed with how these kids handle victory, defeat, and team spirit,'' he says.
Mr. Stevens says that starting children early helps cultivate a team ethos: ''Kids grow up in an egocentric environment at home ... one of our functions as coaches is to introduce the concept that there are teams or groups that are more important than the individual,'' he says, adding: ''When you see two seven-year-olds running down the field, passing the ball back and forth and not caring who gets to take the shot on the goal, it's just beautiful.''