Billy Hirschfield, now 16, was 11 when his dad first took him to an establishment called NX+Level, in Waukesha, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee.
The atmosphere at NX+Level, can be intense.
Pro athletes train there. Signs on the gym walls say things like, ‘‘You can only be a winner if you are willing to walk over the edge.’’
But it was exactly the kind of atmosphere Billy craved back then, says his dad Ronnie Hirschfield. ‘‘He was a chunky kid, and he didn’t like that,’’ dad says.
Today, his son is a high school junior and varsity football player being recruited by major college football teams.
Now a 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive tackle and end, he’s so big and muscular — and so dedicated to his training — that his friends call him ‘‘the freak.’’
‘‘I never in a million years thought it would be like that,’’ says his dad, who figures he spends $8,000 to $10,000 a year on sports, including training and travel to tournaments.
It’s all been worth it, he says.
‘‘Why wouldn’t you spend that on your son to make him a better person?’’ his dad asks. ‘‘And if he ends up walking away with a scholarship, it was the best investment I could have ever made.’’
Brad Arnett, the owner of NX+Level, knows there are those who question whether kids should train in his facility. But he makes it clear that they have to want to be there, as Billy did.
‘‘We want your kids to want to do this,’’ Arnett says. ‘‘We don’t bring them in and work them until they puke. There is a means to an end.’’
He says training in a club like his helps kids develop more strength and agility — and also avoid injury because they’re in better shape.
Others think the training should be done in a different type of setting — and with less emphasis on competitiveness.
‘‘I think things are going down a dangerous path,’’ says David Finch, a certified strength and conditioning specialist who recently left his job as a school psychologist in Chicago to open his gym in Middleton, Wis., outside Madison.
If parents bring younger kids in, he often suggests learning a few overall fitness techniques and working on them at home.
‘‘If they’re in your facility because ‘Hey, you have to secure a roster spot,’ then that’s not so good,’’ Finch says.
This should be fun, he adds.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a parent who'd disagree with that.
But with competition all around, parents don’t just worry about a child’s athletic career or getting into a good college. Many worry about getting them into a decent elementary school.
Sports can be seen as a ticket to something bigger, a way to set a kid apart from the pack.
‘‘You try and build the perfect kid,’’ says Adam Naylor, a clinical assistant professor of sports psychology at Boston University who works with parents and athletes, some as young as age 12.
‘‘It leads to overtraining, overuse and an over-committed kid, which has fallout. But it’s really tough to see that in the moment.’’
He recalls one mom who told him: ‘‘In this town, if you don’t play club soccer, you’re told your kid won’t make it in life. But we only have money to play town soccer.’’
She felt guilty that she couldn’t afford the more expensive private league, like she was failing her kid. She felt pressured, as many parents do.
Other times, it’s the parents doing the pushing — as Worthy sees it, their quest to boost their own self esteem with their children’s accomplishments. He calls it ‘‘vicarious glory.’’
He recalls how those moms on the golf course followed their daughters on every golf round and introduced themselves not by their own names but as ‘‘so and so’s mom.’’
Still, even he concedes that his competitive parent has shone through occasionally.
He remembers telling a buddy a few years back that his daughter was getting into golf after giving up competitive gymnastics because of injury.
‘‘If she’s going to play,’’ the friend advised, ‘‘buy her the best gear possible because everybody out there is going to have it.’’
Did Worthy do it?
‘‘Yep,’’ he says. ‘‘Because if you don't, then it’s not even fair.’’
As psychologist Wendy Grolnick sees it, that’s just parents doing what they’re wired to do — responding to a very primal instinct to protect their children and ensure their survival.
‘‘It’s not out of a sense of living through your child or narcissism. Parents love their kids and they don’t want them to miss out,’’ says Grolnick, a professor at Clark University who wrote the book ‘‘Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Children: Dealing with Competition While Raising a Successful Child.’’
The key is to keep it in check.Continued...