My sons are starting to take two different paths in sports, and one of them is making me a little nervous.
I'll start with the one that doesn't: my 11-year-old Tommy, who is a decent baseball player, a fairly lousy basketball player and a complete rookie at football, or I should say flag football (tackle isn't on the table at the moment). Coaches have never singled him out as a potentially great player, which has left him free to choose whatever sport -- or level of that sport -- he wants to play in a particular season without pressure or even advice from anyone on the sidelines.
The past two falls and springs, Tommy has chosen baseball. All were great experiences for him except last year's fall team, where he was thrown in with a group of older, more seasoned players who he felt took everything too seriously and didn't always treat him and the other younger boys well. So when this fall rolled around, he wanted to mix things up. He was ready for some football.
This past weekend, Tommy played in his first flag football game under the church-based Upward program, which emphasizes sportsmanship and equal playing time for all ahead of winning. He snagged an interception on defense, completed a pass at quarterback and dreams of scoring a touchdown in next weekend's game. It's pure fun, with the benefits of exercise and friendship.
As Tommy says, "I just wanted a break. It's cool finding out what another sport is like."
Maybe next fall Tommy will go back to baseball, or maybe football again, or heck, maybe he'll feel like trying out soccer or horseback riding. He's not specializing, which means he's unknowingly following recommendations for young athletes from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Settling on one sport too early and playing it year round, doctors say, can easily lead to physical and mental burnout.
Pediatric orthopedics locally and around the country are seeing more kids with damaged bones and joints. One-sport athletes also are less likely to fully develop fundamental motor skills, and the stress of competition and pressure (often from parents, sadly) can take the joy out of playing. There's also the chance that a child's performance at one age won't predict his or her performance later on -- so a gifted baseball player at age 8 might be an even more gifted soccer player as a teenager, but if he never tries soccer or any sport other than baseball, he'll never know.
So now I come to my younger son, 9-year-old Sammy. I tell his story not to boast or be a stage mom in any way, but just to be honest about the situation he's in. From the time Sammy first picked up a glove in tee ball, he has regularly been the best player on his Little League team. Sometimes he has been so clearly the best, especially on defense, that he has gotten a little bored.
Inevitably, coaches noticed him. This summer, my husband's cell phone rang and a coach for a local travel team was on the line, unsolicited. He wanted Sammy for his team, which plays games on the Southside as well as the Peninsula and possibly into the Richmond area. The boys practice twice a week and frequently play two or three games on weekends, sometimes all in the course of one afternoon.
It's an entirely different atmosphere than flag football. Practices are serious with little fooling around. The kids still have a blast together and our coaches are wonderful, but it's clear the goal is developing future baseball players. The assumption seems to be that Sammy will stay with the program long-term, given that he stays good enough. Come spring, many of the boys plan to sign up for travel ball as well as regular Little League, putting them on two different teams in one season. There's also talk of training at an indoor facility during the winter months.
Sammy loves travel ball (if he didn't, we wouldn't have him there). He is thrilled by the challenge and so excited on practice days that he gets ready way ahead of time and sits waiting with his glove in his lap until it's time to leave. And so far, my husband and I are good with it too. We are grateful he has the chance to be so happy.
But I can sense the pressure coming down. If Sammy ever wants to take a break to try a different sport, I get the feeling that coaches and many other parents might look at us like we have three heads, that he'd fall behind and never, ever, no way catch up with the kids who stayed in the same game. And what if Sammy does play on two teams in a season someday: will it be too tough on his body? Will he be asked to go beyond single-team pitch counts meant to protect his arm, for example? If so, my husband and I would have to speak up.
Obviously, we will speak up if we need to. We would be fine with bucking the trends of specialization and pressure to be "elite" at a ridiculously early age, and we will if we feel like that's what's best for our son. We could care less if Sammy is ever a great baseball player, unless it's what he wants and it's done in a healthy, happy way. But I'm not sure it's going to be easy to draw the line.
Of course, maybe I'm getting way ahead of myself, as my neurotic persona tends to do. After all, Sammy is only 9, and he's going to play basketball this winter, another sport he loves. He spends hours throwing the football around with his dad and brother, takes tennis lessons and enters 5K races with me, in which he repeatedly smokes me. He's not even close to a single-sport guy.
If I have my way, he never will be.