Monday, March 24, 2008

Youth and the Cult of Competition.

I heard on the news this morning that the top American figure skater is not allowed to compete in the 2008 world championships in Sweden. Mirai Nagasu is a 14-year old from California, and has already proven herself to be one of the BEST at her sport by winning the US National Championship in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although she qualifies for the senior level here in her home-country, she is still considered a 'junior' worldwide. So she'll have to put the greater glory on hold for another year. For some reason, the rest of the world doesn't seem to want to embrace the US agenda of producing the youngest elite athletes. Are other countries simply proving themselves to be the "nanny states" that Americans regularly accuse them of being, or is there a valid reason to encourage patience in our children?

It's not uncommon here in the States for parents to sign their kids up for a competitive sport at age 5 or 6. After all, if the young ones are going to eventually become the very best, then they need to start early. At stake are limited college scholarships and even more rare slots in the pro ranks. For some people the goal of winning eventually eclipses all of the other reasons for participating in sports. The overzealous father who screams from the sidelines at the coach or referees is now a cliche. There is a quality of desperation in the expectations such parents have for the performance of their offspring. It really is as if they are trying to live through their kids. Projecting one's own inner dreams on one's brood can be more than just creepy- it can actually be physically harmful to the child.

The nature of childhood is development. Growth during this initial period of one's life can set the tone for adult health. Putting young people at risk for serious injuries that may affect them for the rest of their lives does not seem especially prudent. There is much evidence that intense physical conditioning (even without injury) can stunt growth. That's because nutrients and energy that would ordinarily be used for bone development is diverted to the muscles. Additionally, unnatural amounts of chemicals produced in the process of working out can interfere with the natural levels of hormones associated with nascent maturity. Have you ever wondered why so many short adults were intense wrestlers or gymnasts in their youths?

Aside from whatever physical maturation problems can arise from a hyper-competitive drive, there are psychological concerns that must be taken into account. No matter how good your little one ever gets at a sport, there is always someone better. If self-worth is determined by rank, then one learns to never be satisfied. While perpetual dissatisfaction is actually encouraged as a positive value in American culture, it can be devastating to one's perception of "quality of life". Do you really want to teach your son or daughter that they can never be quite good enough? By putting an inordinate emphasis on the competitive quality of sports, that's exactly what you are doing. And even if they do become elite, they will have to accept that time itself is against them. In many world-class athletic events, you are washed up by the time you are in your mid-20's (if not before).

Given the American way of approaching competitive athletics, I have absolutely no inclination to encourage my children to pursue such goals. Not only would I not want them to feel over-the-hill before they even reach full adulthood, but I also wouldn't want them looking back on their high school years as the "best times of their lives"- because that's simply pathetic. Additionally, I don't want to see them enter the cult of worship that makes watching televised sports a lifelong obsession. These athletes (professional or otherwise) are not heroes, at least not simply by virtue of them being the best at some conglomeration of physical feats. In most cases they are merely people who have such limited focus that they excel at a single thing. Apparently that's what passes for a role model in our narrow-minded society. It's a shame.

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