Sports psychologists: ‘We’re starting kids too young’

Gloria BalagueA panel of nationally renowned sports psychologists shared ideas Monday morning on how organized youth athletics can produce the kind of adults expected of such programs.

During a 75-minute conversation in the Capitol Room of the Holmes Student Center, the three professors addressed ways that parents and coaches can offer a positive situation and instill mental skills along with the physical.

“What’s the goal of children in sports?” asked Gloria Balague of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “To keep them in sports. It’s not to win medals. But if you are like a lot of parents and coaches, that is the goal – or to make the traveling team, or to win the city championship.”

Joining Balague in a wide-ranging discussion about programs that teach children physical skills while they also have fun were Daniel Gould of Michigan State University and Robert Weinberg of Miami (Ohio) University.

The three were invited to campus by Paul Wright, interim chair of the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, who wanted KNPE students to learn “the role, or the obligation, of the sports experience to really help people develop socially, emotionally and ethically.”

Wright opened the session by mentioning the alarming frequency of professional athletes whose behavior is often on the wrong side of the law – this on a day when heavy snow in Boston postponed the murder trial of former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez – despite the notion that youth sports build character.

Some of the “damages” from an “unstable confidence” start with the immunization of children against negative situations and emotions. “They don’t know what it means to persevere,” Balague said. “They don’t know to handle difficult things.”

Meanwhile, pressure to make starting lineups and earn trophies can prove harmful, she said said.

“Being very good (at sports) doesn’t make you a good person,” she said. “It doesn’t give you special privileges – or it shouldn’t”

Daniel Gould
Daniel Gould

Gould warned of the “professionalization” of youth sports, citing the national television broadcast of little league world series games as an example.

“We’re starting kids too young, we’re specializing them too early and we’re sending them into competition before they ready,” Gould said. “There’s a time to compete intensely. It’s probably not at 9.”

For those who watched 2-year-old Tiger Woods putting for Johnny Carson, Weinberg said, look at Woods now. “You don’t have to start at 2 or 3 to become a great athlete,” he said.

Coaches, Gould said, must intentionally create an “educational athletics” environment where “student-athletes” are free to experiment, make mistakes and learn from their mistakes.

Parents also must allow their children to fall and get up, he added. “Most parents today intervene too soon,” he said. “It’s really hard to watch your kids fail.”

Likewise, Balague said, mothers and fathers should curb their extracurricular coaching from the bleachers.

She suggested filming parents while they watch their children and keeping the camera rolling while parents compete in front of their children. Such video has driven parents to tears as they realize that about 80 percent of their comments are critical while their children are 100 percent encouraging when the roles are reversed.

“How are you going to keep kids in sports,” she asked, “when they make mistakes and look back to see the reactions of their parents or coaches?”

Weinberg offered his definition of “mental toughness” – a phrase often cited by coaches in why their teams won or lost – and its critical role in developing well-rounded athletes.

Robert Weinberg
Robert Weinberg

Mental toughness, he said, includes:

  • the ability to deal with pressure or adversity;
  • motivation to set goals and persistence to achieve them;
  • belief in self; and
  • the ability to focus and maintain that concentration for several hours.

He cited the case of late tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis, who finally triumphed over rival Jimmy Connors in 1980 after 16 consecutive losses. Afterward, Gerulaitis told reporters: “And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”

(The dark side of mental toughness, Weinberg added, is seen in athletes who play in pain or with injuries and position themselves to make their situations much worse.)

NIU’s students can start to make a difference by ensuring that coaches and parents are well-trained in sport psychology, the panelists said.

Coaches should realize the importance of measuring and rewarding improvement over time as well as honoring effort alongside ability. Parents should know what is expected of them when they enroll their children.

Meanwhile, parents who volunteer to coach their children’s teams must walk the fine line between the two roles. This includes not working a child harder than the rest to avoid the appearance of favoritism.

And “in the car going home,” Balague said, “you are no longer Coach. You are Dad. You are no longer Coach. You are Mom.”

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