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Getting played

The risks to children - particularly girls - in increasingly competitive sports

At the highest levels of soccer and basketball, females suffer ACL tears about eight times as often as men, writes Sokolove. At the highest levels of soccer and basketball, females suffer ACL tears about eight times as often as men, writes Sokolove. (Susan Stava for the New York Times)
By Bill Littlefield
July 27, 2008
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Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children
By Tom Farrey
ESPN, 383 pp., $24.95

Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports
By Michael Sokolove
Simon & Schuster, 308 pp., $25

In the old days of college athletics, there used to be something called a walk-on.

Lots of colleges had them. They were kids who'd played a sport in high school and figured they'd give it another shot when they got to campus.

Anecdotal evidence suggesting that walk-ons have become nearly extinct comes from a coach at Skidmore College. I asked her how many walk-ons would make her soccer team. She told me she didn't think there would be any. She'd recruited everybody she needed.

Youngsters who've impressed college coaches enough to make recruiting lists stand a far better chance than less athletic counterparts of gaining acceptance at virtually every school that fields teams.

As a result, parents and coaches have been pushing children to specialize at younger and younger ages. The "new thinking," according to Tom Farrey, author of "Game On," is that "it's never too early to train children as competitors." "Five-year-olds play soccer year-round," he writes. "Two-year-olds have custom golf clubs." Parents who don't want to risk choosing the wrong sport can have their infant's DNA tested by a company that identifies the appropriate game for that child's genetic predisposition.

The dream of an athletic scholarship or, at least, an edge in the admissions derby isn't the only motivation for parents to push their kids toward mastery of one sport. Kids in elementary school encounter a system that rewards early athletic promise. Travel teams and elite teams are standard in most places. Like Little League, peewee hockey, or CYO basketball on steroids, these ambitious entities reinforce the notion that children's sports must include regularly scheduled practices, uniforms, adult coaches, officials, clocks, scoreboards, and, of course, tryouts and cuts. According to Farrey's research, the result is a decrease in the number of children playing games for fun and an increase in burnouts - kids who've been playing so intensively for so long that by the time they're 13, they're sick of the sport toward which they were steered, if not all organized sports.

Citing those reasons and others, Farrey makes a case that there is "something structurally askew with the whole setup" of youth sports in the United States, home to "the fattest children in the world," in part because the system rewards "early bloomers, leaving the rest behind."

In his epilogue, Farrey suggests various ways the broken system might be - if not fixed - nudged toward sanity. He urges parents to suggest strongly that sports programs in their towns be organized around the needs of kids, not adults, meaning all those who want to play, rather than the parents of the kids who already play well and aspire to play at a higher level.

Michael Sokolove, author of "Warrior Girls," would certainly agree that the system is broken, but his focus is more specific. "The way children play sports in America is not particularly good for either sex," he writes. "For the girls, though, it is all too often disastrous." Nobody who's paid any attention to women's sports can fail to have noticed that women suffer more knee, back, and head injuries than men playing the same sports. At the most competitive levels of soccer and basketball, girls and women suffer anterior cruciate ligament tears about eight times as often as men do.

Sokolove understands that the suggestion in the subtitle of his book that female athletes need to be "protected" will lead some to conclude that he's an enemy of Title IX, women's sports, and perhaps women in general. But he believes the greatest danger to women's sports is not backlash over teams eliminated by colleges trying to establish comparable opportunities for female athletes, or fatheads who believe the games the women play are intrinsically inferior. "What does threaten women's sports," he writes, "is that far too many girls and young women are leaving the playing field broken up and in chronic pain." He makes his case with statistics, interviews, and powerful stories about women who might have been stars if their knees hadn't exploded.

Like Farrey, Sokolove offers potential solutions to the problem he identifies. He urges coaches of women's teams to recognize the value of exercise and training programs that teach girls and women to run, jump, and land in ways less likely to damage their knees and back. He cautions parents about the "warrior" mentality valued by many coaches, since it often leads athletes - sometimes with the blessing of a coach and a trainer or physician - to return before they have healed. Like Farrey, he advocates cross-training, whereby kids play several sports rather than specializing in one, since specialization means more stress through repetitive motion on the same developing muscles and joints. He encourages parents to resist the "bullying" of coaches who argue that without a full-time, year-round commitment, a 10-year-old athlete will fall behind her peers.

The call for a saner sports culture for the members of both genders represented by these thoughtful, thorough, and compelling books is convincing and welcome.

Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio's "Only a Game."

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