Are Young People Too Pressured to Take Up Sports?

Hardly a bad word is uttered about school sports in this country. Occasionally, we’ll read a news story about some tragic consequence of lacrosse or football hazing, or exposés like Buzz Bissinger’s After Friday Night Lights, about the professional and financial black hole that some prominent athletes face once they leave the competitive arena. But few people talk about the stresses of starting a sport too young, or being forced by an overachieving parent to continue doing a sport you hate, or begin plagued by injuries or fatigue before you even reach high school, or feeling that you’re devoting most of your young life to something that you’re not likely to make a career of. The general consensus in this part of the world seems to be that sports are great, and every young person should participate in a sport, or several.

Recently the media has done a better job of highlighting the dark side (or, at least, less hardware-filled side) of school sports. For example, the long-term damage caused by football concussions, or the impact of fame on an athlete (After Friday Night Lights; Tiger Woods generally), or the pressure to choose an athletic career over academic pursuits, as explored in a recent New York Times profile of the talented 21-year-old swimmer Dagny Knutson. Last year, the New York Times Magazine wrote a fascinating (if negatively biased) profile of two tween-aged female distance runners, who compete alongside adults in grueling races that, some experts say, could disrupt their reproductive development (not to mention result in mental and physical burnout by age 15). The author of the piece discovered that the source of this young pair’s unlikely athletic career was, not surprisingly, two overachieving, disciplinarian parents. But they are parents who are also raising two very accomplished students, one of whom excels in science.

None of the above problems were mine growing up. Mine was that I hated and was horrible at all of the regularly touted American sports: soccer, basketball, softball, swimming, field hockey and lacrosse. I tried swimming, but did so poorly that the only award they could think to give me at the end of the season was “Favorite Canadian Swimmer.” Eventually I discovered track and field, but success didn’t come easily. I came last in every race my first season. The next year, I walked a fine line between quitting and actually trying. I watched as many of my friends acquired or faked shin splint injuries and, within weeks, quit altogether.

I decided that quitting was more daunting, more depressing somehow, than staying. I was not pressured to stay on the team by my parents; they couldn’t have cared less what I decided to do. But I figured that the worst that could happen was that I would continue to suck. But I liked being out there, on the track in a carved-out bowl at the bottom of London’s Parliament Hill Fields on a sunny, warm-enough spring afternoon. I realized that trying to pass my peers during a mile time trial could be fun, and could make me feel like less of an invisible loser amongst my peers, which is what I’d felt like up until that point.

Still, I think any number of the issues above — the strain on the body, the unlikelihood of ever becoming a professional athlete, the necessarily short duration of a competitive athletic career — are reasonable excuses for a student to focus on other pursuits, like art, drama, music, inventing things, programming, reading books, or any number of other extracurriculars. Who’s to say that other extracurriculars don’t have the same positive impacts on kids that sports do? (Beckett A. Broh of Ohio State University argued this very point a few years ago in the journal Sociology of Education).

Anyway, too bad, because our country is obsessed with sports. It might look on the outside like this obsession is fueled by millions of ex-athlete parents looking for a slice of vicarious glory and a way to get their kids out of their hair for a dozen hours every week. Kids are also likely dazzled by the fame and fortune of the very few athletes who rise to the top of their games. But there’s more to it. There is simply a ton of research showing that sports improve young people’s lives. Sports have been shown to positively impact academic performance, self-worth, social interaction, leadership skills, cultural relations, ambition, goal-setting, not to mention physical fitness, and a probably lifelong appreciation of the importance of exercise. The health benefits alone are clear, and hard to ignore, especially in a country with an unrivaled obesity problem. The rest are just really nice perks.

Personally, I needed sports, even stupid swimming. The truth is I loved swimming, even though I improved about ten percent over the course of my two seasons on the squad. Swimming was proto-running: I loved the solitude and the boring yet meditative repetition of doing hundreds of laps every afternoon. I loved the discipline of it. I loved that breathless and oddly refreshing fatigue I felt while sitting at my desk later that night, writing an outline of the latest AP US History chapter.

Like most kids, I was liable to distraction, whether it was smoking, drinking, dancing, boys, television, or what little internet we had back then: AOL Instant Messenger, e-mail, and my Dave Matthews Band fan site (I am only slightly ashamed to admit that the first website I built was devoted to Dave Matthews; we all have our musical Achilles heels). Sports allowed me to channel my wayward vision. I was prone to following others, copying others, being overly influenced by others. I enjoyed stepping into other people’s shoes. But sports helped me to carve, however reluctantly, a solid identity for myself. And I think I might have learned more as a bad swimmer than I did as a good runner.

According to a study conducted in the 1990s and 2000s by the University of Miami’s Center for Research on Sport in Society, students in sports “express less hostility toward their classmates and are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college.” (The Center for Research on Sport in Society was set up to help inform the public on the benefits, risks and general impact of school athletics on young people. After perusing its website, it does not seem that the CRSS has found many negatives of sports since the center’s inception in 1996.)

One of the oft-mentioned benefits of youth sports is that they can provide a way out for many students, especially those living in poverty or in unstable homes. To that end, the CRSS showed that “at-risk youths greatly benefit from participating in sports programs.”

“Our initial investigations,” said the study’s director, Jomills Braddock, “indicate that among African American males, student athletes are more likely to have actually enrolled in college prep programs, graduated from high school, and matriculated in college.” Involvement in sports and extracurriculars is also said to “lower levels of conflict among students of different races.”

More than 7.6 million high school students participated in sports during the 2010-2011 school year, according to the High School Athletics Participation Survey. This was an increase of 40,000 students over the previous year, notes an article about the survey in US News & World Report. It was also the 22nd straight year that the number of student-athletes increased.

But it’s also the smallest increase since the late 1980s. The director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which conducted the study, says the slowed growth can be attributed to “budget demands” following the recession. (I wonder if the Internet also plays a role.) The most popular sports are basketball and football, according to the survey. The fastest-growing sport is girls’ lacrosse. Promisingly, girls now make up 41 percent of all high school athletes, up five percent over the previous decade.

Some parents (and students) still think that the time commitment of — and culture surrounding — sports can negatively affect academic performance. You would assume it would, resulting in tired children and reduced homework time. What tired student-athlete wouldn’t rather veg in front of the TV after practice than study for a physics quiz? But research on this suggests, well, the opposite. A Minnesota study from 2007 showed that the mean GPA of Minnesota athletes included in the study was 2.84, while the mean GPA of non-athletes was 2.68. It doesn’t hurt that some athletic programs require a minimum GPA in order for students to participate. A separate study at Brigham Young University found that “women were 41 percent more likely to graduate from college than those who did not play sports in high school,” US News writes.

Why do sports seem to work so well? There is, of course, scientific research showing that exercise promotes cell regeneration, which means that an athlete might actually be sharper during a post-practice study session than a non-athlete. Sports also promote better eating habits; you simply can’t perform as well if you’re fueling your body with junk food (or alcohol, cigarettes and drugs). Some researchers, including the NFHS director, Bob Gardner, think that playing sports simply breeds more loyalty to one’s school, forging a deeper investment in being there at all. There is the obvious, much-hammered-home argument that, “You learn life lessons like teamwork and leadership,” as Gardner says. “Those lessons benefit you as you become an adult.”

But it’s also as simple as giving kids less time in which to complete everything they do. If you’ve ever been a victim of your work “expanding to fill the time allotted to it” (I have), you might appreciate this idea. The busier you are, the more productive you are, or so the theory goes. This is hard to swallow, because it necessarily means doing more, working harder, and having less time for Gchat, getting drunk and kissing boys, but we have to accept that it’s probably true. As Martin Dugard, a runner, coach and sports writer, wrote in his 2011 book To Be A Runner, “If I can write every day, run every day … then my attitude and outlook will be just that much more fantastic. If I don’t do those things, there is a very good possibility I will lapse into decay or lethargy, or simply feel overwhelmed to the point of sputtering inertia.” What kinds of things appear really attractive to a young person suffering from “sputtering inertia”? Easy things, pleasurable things: drugs, alcohol, television, delicious bad food, sex.

It’s funny that we can feel “overwhelmed” by inaction. But it’s a question of getting a motor started. Once the motor is running, pretty much anything is possible. When the motor is off, nothing is. There is a wall between us and the things we long to do. Only an attempt to kick down the wall will get us going.

Millions of American parents and school administrators still operate by this principle: pack a kid’s schedule with as many activities as humanly possible, preferably activities that result in a tired kid, even if it requires getting in a car seven times a day. My fiancé likes to tell the story of being stuck in traffic in Los Angeles for hours one Saturday and looking around and realizing that seemingly every surrounding car was filled with school-age soccer players being driven to games by their parents. This is all easy to scoff at, from a distance. My mother, who was loving and hands-on, but not passionate about putting us in sports, doesn’t support the above parenting philosophy. She thinks children should be given more hours to just do one thing, not be shuttled from one extracurricular to another. She also believes that children should be let loose more. Having grown up in rural Ontario, she sees the benefits of an independent, imagination-packed childhood. Less so sports.

Recently, another New York Times Magazine article argued that the key to whether a kid cracks under pressure, or thrives, is genetic. There is literally a gene, the author’s research revealed, that determines what kind of kid you are. Of course, the research used standardized tests, a particularly high-stakes and grueling activity, as its model. There are different kinds of pressure, some more fun than others. What about an average night of soccer practice, homework and studying? What about a soccer tournament? That begs the question: is juggling a bunch of extracurriculars good for all kids, or just some? Doesn’t it have as much to do with personality, parenting, and one’s general home environment as it does with genetics? Not every student-athlete is created equal. But you could argue that the longer-term benefits of participating in sports are universal, and worth the struggle.

In a one-page bullet-point publication called “PLEASE CONSIDER THESE FACTS BEFORE YOU CUT HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS” published by Aptos High School, in budget-stricken Aptos, California, in 2009, the school lists the pro-sports results of some of the studies I mentioned above, along with several others. The highlights:

Athletes are 51% less likely to use drugs and 63% less likely to become teen parents (No Child Left Behind, 2002)

Athletes score higher on college admissions tests (Howard T. Everson, 2005)

Athletes are less likely to use tobacco and drugs than non-athletes (Adolescence, 2001)

Sports are one of the most effective intervention programs for low-status, disadvantaged students (Harvard Educational Review, 2002)

Athletes take more AP classes than non-athletes (Infinite Menus, 2006)

Statistics and studies are fine, but I wanted to ask some real ex- and current athletes for their thoughts. So I took to Twitter. I got several responses, and each person only had positive things to say about their athletic experiences (which made me wonder whether I should have also reached out to non-athletes to get them to talk about their experiences, their reasons for not playing a sport. If that describes you, please leave a comment below).

Joseph Brooks, 26, told me that playing lacrosse helped bring him to mature. “I was pretty antisocial and kind of rudderless before I started playing lacrosse,” he says (he played the sport in high school and also at a small college). “I was never amazing, but I was good enough to get a small scholarship, and I think playing lacrosse actually made me more determined to do well in school so I could get into a good college. I was interested in doing lacrosse and also being challenged academically.”

Kate Irwin-Smiler, 34, tells me that she swam “competitively in high school (and before that), but only recreationally (and VERY occasionally) in college.” “Did it change me?” she wonders. “I think it taught me some important lessons. The one I keep coming back to (especially recently) is that my body can do more than I think it can. It really helped me to have a guy standing on the deck telling me to swim more laps — he knew I could do it, even when I thought I was tapped out. I think that taught me to push myself and take on challenges that seemed daunting.”

“My body can do more than I think it can.” This is a wonderful way of looking at exercise. In fact, it’s probably the essence of getting people to appreciate and stick with exercise. Americans spent $21.4 billion on gym memberships and personal trainers in 2011, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sports Club Association. These investments are designed to show us that our bodies “can do more than we think they can,” not to mention convince us that exercise can be fun. Fitness classes and personal trainers are school sports for grown-ups. They can reinforce, or teach for the first time, the values that school sports impart: routine, discipline, socialization, and so forth.

Despite having been a competitive runner in high school, college and as an adult, I still sometimes forget how to be brave, how to tackle new challenges. I snowboarded for one season during college, in the heyday of my athletic career, and then, for whatever reason, didn’t hit the slopes again for a decade. This year I finally and very reluctantly learned how to ski, my legs literally shaking in my boots. Now I love skiing. I’m even ditching the beach for a ski vacation next month. But why didn’t my years “pushing myself,” as Kate calls it, help me realize that snowboarding and skiing weren’t that scary? That they could be learned and enjoyed if I just gave it a few months? That I could even, dare I say it, be good at them? Did those 12 happy, confidence-boosting, character-building years of running really do that much for me in the end? Or were the effects illusory at worst, fleeting at best?

It’s impossible to know. We can’t go back in time and be a different version of ourselves, a version that spent all her spare time in a painting studio and cowered before a kickball in gym class, or a version that only ever tried soccer and got kicked about the field like the soccer ball itself (that was me in middle school). Or a version that chose modeling over the swim team, or hundreds of afternoons of music lessons over lacrosse practice. If I had run less and read more, maybe I would actually be smarter now, better at writing, farther along in my career. Maybe I could have learned running as an adult, and enjoyed it more, without the ghosts of competitions and podiums past always chasing me around Central Park.

There is no point in wondering. As Haruki Murakami wrote in his 2008 memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, “Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”

The way you used to be. That’s a double-edged sword. It’s motivating and it’s defeating. Who needs another way to regret the passage of time, to scrutinize one’s body as it ages? Just this morning I was lamenting lost, spry years as I stepped out of bed and felt all my joints creak and my muscles ache, yearning for stillness following a hard workout I did yesterday evening. But I had to stop myself: I was not in pain because I was getting old; I was in pain because I don’t do hard workouts enough, because I am no longer “pushing myself.”

In the routine of exercise, and only in the routine, there is a sweet spot where we can feel that we’ve actually stopped time, pushed mortality to the side and out of sight, at least for an hour or two. Being a student-athlete isn’t the only way to learn this. But when I catch myself worrying to much about what everyone else is doing, or how they’re doing it, or how quickly, I remind myself of the particulars of my identity: I run, I have run. I have a long, rich and dramatic history with it. It’s important to have a history with something. But I’m not convinced it has to be a sport. TC mark

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