The Competition Dilemma: It Takes Family Teamwork to Navigate Sports Involvement

Silicon Valley is known for its abundance of adult high-achievers. Many parents have similar high expectations for their children – especially when it comes to sports. Kids are pushed to begin training at an early age and to increase their involvement level quickly. Some children thrive with this kind of encouragement. But for some kids – and their families – the cost in terms of dollars and stress add up. In this article, we look at the question of how and when to push your young athlete and when to back off.

By Nina Amir

My daughter has been ice skating since she was 5 years old. At age 10, she left recreational skating behind and began competing in a more serious league. The lessons and coaching fees associated with her sport increased significantly, as did the associated pressures on my daughter, as well as on our family.

Her new coach stressed the need to spend more time on the ice, and I could see my daughter’s improvement was slow because she wasn’t skating more often. Yet, each time I discussed increasing her number of practice sessions, my daughter balked.

As a parent, I wanted her to scale up her involvement to help her improve – and to justify the cost of lessons. Yet, I couldn’t really afford for her to do so. Nor did I want to push her to do something she was unwilling to do. I didn’t want her to quit because of the pressure to practice more often, yet if she stopped skating altogether it would have made my life, and that of my family, much easier in many ways. My daughter was not an Olympic contender, but I wanted to support her in doing something she enjoyed and to experience being successful at it. I just wasn’t sure how to accomplish that.

Serious Sports
As children outgrow recreational involvement, many parents experience a similar scenario, causing them to wonder how to walk the fine line of their children’s involvement in sports like ice skating, dancing, swimming, tennis and gymnastics, all of which can be time consuming and expensive.

Many parents voice concern about the stress on their children’s schoolwork and social life. For example, 10-year-old Amanda Dobbs of Hollister skates for three hours before school plus completes a one-and-a-half-hour home workout after school each day, attends a ballet class once a week to improve her skating and skates for two hours on the weekend.

“I was really concerned,” says her mother Laura Dobbs. “Schoolwork was a big issue for me.”

In addition, Amanda doesn’t have much time to spend with friends. When there is a birthday party or some other activity, “sometimes we can make it work and other times we can’t,” says Laura. “Most of Amanda’s good friends know this is her schedule … and they coordinate with her and adjust their schedules to include her when possible.”

Penny Tom of Los Altos has also worked sports into her schedule with her daughter, Kyla, 17, who has been a serious gymnast for nine years. Kyla is at the gym six days a week for a total of 20 hours a week.

“Kyla takes AP classes and puts a lot of pressure on herself in both school and at gymnastics,” her mother says. “I have worried about the pressure.”

Other parental concerns revolve around health and injuries.

“Between the cost of lessons, private sessions, team uniforms, travel expenses and fund raisers, our family was spending thousands and thousands of dollars a year,” says the mother of a “retired” gymnast from Santa Cruz. “But what really concerned me was the toll on her body – the lack of sleep because of practices and the possible damage to her body. We were living at the chiropractor’s office! She was getting a lot out of the sport, but I was also worried that she’d wind up as a 20-year-old with a bad back and damaged knees and joints. We were all relieved when she decided that she wanted to move on and try some other sports.”

Are You Having Fun?
The experts all agree that parents must establish good lines of communication with their young athletes. According to Lisa Post, Ph.D., chief of sports medicine in psychiatry at Stanford University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, “If you don’t have a handle on communicating with your child, or if you abdicate to a coach, you leave a lot of room for your kid to be in over his head.”

The most important information is whether or not your child is happy.

“Ask your child: Are you having fun? Are you learning a lot? Are you still excited about it?” suggests Lovetta Downes, jazz teacher and performing company coach at Dance Attack in Los Gatos and professor of dance at San Jose State University. “If the answer is no, they may need to cut back and do the sport recreationally.”

Or, it may be time to quit.

“Any gains that competitive sports offer would be heavily outweighed by putting a child in a position that they weren’t seeing as fulfilling,” says Robert Levit, Ph.D., of West Valley Group in Los Gatos. “But a child that is pleased to be in an activity can be in it for quite a number of hours each day.”

For example, Josh Dixon, 13, of San Jose, trains as a gymnast five days a week from 5:30 until 9 p.m. and then on Saturday’s from 12:30 to 3 p.m. A freshman in high school this year, he says, “From 3 until 4:30 p.m. each day, I’m at home doing my homework. When I get home after practice at 9:30 p.m., I eat dinner and then finish the rest of my homework. Sometimes I’m pretty tired, but I don’t mind. I’m willing to do all this, because I love gymnastics so much.”

But in other cases, parents must be alert, because a child’s actions speak louder than words, according to Tracy Prussack, a skating coach at Logitech Ice in San Jose.

“If your child is not wanting to go to the rink, not practicing, not wanting to be on the ice, … you can encourage your child to stick with the activity,” she says. “But if the behavior continues, maybe you need to find some other activity to get your child involved in.” 

A Too-High Price?
Even if your child is thriving in the sport, if he is not thriving in other aspects of life, perhaps the involvement is too high.

“Your child might be shy or anxious and a directive activity, such as gymnastics, might be anxiety reducing for them,” explains Levit. “By allowing this time spent in the activity to keep them away from the other things they might need to work on, you are not giving them a chance to overcome areas of insufficient development. So, the fact that they are pleased with the activity is a prerequisite for them staying involved in it, but not an adequate reason to continue with the activity in and of itself.”

Sometimes children are not forthcoming with answers to parental questions or they may not really know what they want. If parents get confusing answers from their children or have unreliable indicators, “they should incorporate whatever kind of resources they can, such as having the children talk to teachers or coaches,” says Levit.

However, keep in mind that unhappiness might also be due to temporary frustration. An ice skater might spend a lot of time falling before landing a new jump, and during that time shy away from going to the rink. A gymnast may fall off the balance beam and then, before the next practice, say she wants to quit. Neither of these scenarios are cause for a parent to take a child out of the activity. In fact, this might be the appropriate time to encourage your child to go on.

Prussack relates a story from her own youth when she was ready to give up her skates because the road to her Olympic dream became too difficult. At the time she was living away from home while on the Olympic training team. When she suffered an injury, “I called my mother and said, ‘Please let me come home. I don’t want to do this anymore’ … My mother said, ‘No. You are going to finish out this year. You need to know whether or not you have what it takes. That’s more important than you coming home because you are not liking skating because it is tough right now’.”

Prussack stayed and has no regrets. In fact, she commends her mother for encouraging her to continue.

Do the Dollars Make Sense?
At first, it may be very flattering to be told that your child has the talent to be involved in a sport at the competitive level. But in the excitement, parents may not understand what that means in terms of increased costs, expectations, commitments and time requirements.

pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">According to Dave Peterson, director, owner and coach at The California Sports Center in San Jose, “Good programs have defined periods of time where you can make a choice about how to proceed. At each stage, it is appropriate to ask your child, do you want to do more? Do you want to increase your number of lessons or sessions from three per week to five? If your child answers with a resounding, ‘Yes,’ then you know it is the right thing to do.”

pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Downes says each new level of involvement is a time for a new discussion between parent and child.

pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“Some kids can handle the increased time requirements and some need more play time or time for homework. If you are a parent with a superstar kid, you want them to be great, but you have to ask if they are ready for that level of involvement.”

pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">If you are unsure, you can always take Post’s suggestion: Find out what it would take to sustain the next level of involvement. Together, make a commitment for certain periods of time, and meet that commitment until that time has expired. “Then re-evaluate,” she says.

pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">For example, Levit suggests making “kid-sized” choices. “If you are considering six months of skating at four hours a day, say to your child, ‘Let’s try this for two or three weeks and then see if we want to make this your goal.”

pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">As parents, we will always wonder if we did our children justice by pushing them to increase their involvement. Or we may wonder if we made a mistake by not allowing them to participate at a higher level or making them quit for some reason.

pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Levit encourages parents not to do so much hand-wringing.

pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“You will never know what the path not taken would have brought,” he says. “If your child grows up feeling listened to and respected and knowing that his or her parents will keep them safe and do everything in their power to make sure he or she doesn’t make irreparably harmful decisions, that does the most to help that child develop well. That is the best lesson you can give them.”

Not Olympic Material
This also applies to kids who may not be so gifted, but are still excited about a sport. When the stakes are high in terms of time and expense, some parents wonder whether it is best to encourage or discourage such a child from participating. Post says the child usually decides that for herself.

MsoNormal>“Kids who don’t have some degree of talent usually give up, because they don’t feel good about the negative feedback,” she explains. “If, however, they feel good about their involvement despite their lack of ability, their involvement is a success.”

MsoNormal>Levit advises parents that if they can afford the cost, they should encourage such a child to continue. “Remember the issue is not how far the child is going to go (in the sport), but what the experience is going to be for them along the way,” he says

MsoNormal>The New Skate Dilemma
With my own daughter’s interest in skating waning, this past summer she informed me she had outgrown her skates. Her coach told me my daughter needed a much more expensive pair and extra time on the ice to break them in before the next competition.

MsoNormal>After many conversations with my daughter, it became clear that she still loved skating, but was just not feeling excited or committed. I decided to purchase the skates as a way of continuing to support her interest. After the initial break-in period for her skates, I decided rather than pushing her to skate more, I would follow her desire to scale back to one lesson and one practice session per week. We agreed that when the competition season was over, she would try a new coach who might make her feel less pressured about competing and who would be less expensive.

MsoNormal>After just three weeks with her new coach, her attitude had changed. Before going to the rink, with a huge smile on her face, she said, “Yeah! I get to go skating now!”

MsoNormal>A week later, she asked me if she could take a second lesson each week and practice a little more. Despite the increase in money and time, I was pleased and agreed without hesitation.

MsoNormal>“Great!” she responded.


Are You Pushing Your Child to be the Next Superstar Athlete?

Many parents and coaches dream of helping along the next Tiger Woods or Serena Williams. However, not that many kids are cut out to be that type of athlete.

According to Dave Peterson, director, owner and coach at The California Sports Center in San Jose, “Less than two percent of the 1,200 kids participating in our gym have such potential.” This statistic is likely the national average for most sports, he says. “Remember this when you sign your child up for an athletic activity.”

Of that 2 percent, not all will even want to continue with a sport despite their proclivity. Sometimes a parent’s desire for their child to succeed in an athletic activity can be a disguise for an unfulfilled desire of their own. When pushing a child to enter and succeed at a sport, parents should ask themselves, “Is success in this sport my child’s agenda or my own agenda for my child?”

Danger Signs

Parents can look for specific signs when trying to discern if their child is over-involved or stressed out by their current level of participation in a particular sport. These include: 

    s: list .5in; mso-list: l0 level1 lfo1">Slipping grades
    s: list .5in; mso-list: l0 level1 lfo1">A new tendency to isolate themselves from friends or family
    s: list .5in; mso-list: l0 level1 lfo1">Drastic changes in friends
    s: list .5in; mso-list: l0 level1 lfo1">Looking and acting fatigued
    s: list .5in; mso-list: l0 level1 lfo1">Increased number of minor illnesses
    s: list .5in; mso-list: l0 level1 lfo1">Inordinate numbers of injuries
    s: list .5in; mso-list: l0 level1 lfo1">Lack of communication

  • Irritability

  • Negative outcomes, such as new fears, behaviors, emotions, attitudes, etc.

  • Rapid mood changes

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Problems concentrating

  • Inability to enjoy activities that used to be enjoyable

From Bay Area Parent, a United Parenting Publication, November, 2003.