“Backspin” Takes the ‘Spin’ Out of What it Takes to Be a Scholarship-Athlete


“Backspin” book cover. http://www.coachstrobl.com/backspin

Backspin” is a highly entertaining memoir of basketball player Pete Strobl a scholarship athlete turned professional, playing for several European leagues between the years 2000 and 2008. Strobl’s passion for the sport and his gift for writing make the book a great read for all audiences, though the experiences Strobl shares about playing as a college athlete and his journey after college to pursue his dreams of the big leagues, provide valuable insight for aspiring college-scholarship athletes and their parents. “Backspin” begins with Strobl sharing his often amusing, experiences at a small-town college, Niagara University, on the east coast in New York State and a long way away from his home state California. The latter two-thirds of the book Strobl describes his turbulent career as a professional athlete playing for several teams within European Basketball leagues in countries that included France, Germany, Austria, Ireland and Switzerland over a period of nine seasons.

The ‘Backspins’
The ‘backspin’ segments within the chapters are brief snippets of Strobl’s life experiences pre-college days that give the reader insight into his tenacity and drive for not just the sport, but his approach to life. My favorite vignettes are the ones featuring Strobl and his dad, which reveal not only the deep influence of Strobl’s dad had on his character, but are touching, funny and real.

Three Helpful Lessons for Potential College Athletes and Parents
Between the pages the book holds helpful lessons for young athletes—either current college athletes or aspiring scholarship-athletes and their parents. It’s not a how-to book, but by reading of Strobl’s experiences coping with school, coaches, relationships and travel, the reader gets a glimpse into the challenges and opportunities of a college athlete. Three themes emerged from the book that may be of value for student-athletes and their families; summarized below.

1)  The Scholarship-athlete’s Multiple Roles
A scholarship-athlete’s college experience greatly differs from a traditional student’s experience, which Strobl highlights perhaps unintentionally in his book. Strobl writes of his experiences in college and his multiple roles and the challenges associated with each. The roles include: student, athlete, scholarship-athlete and teammate, but it’s the role scholarship-athlete that appeared to be most challenging which Strobl recounts as:

“Playing basketball at this level was practically a full-time job, and the value of my full scholarship wasn’t lost on me. I knew I’d have to deliver on the court if I expected to stay on campus, and that required me to work harder than I ever had in the past. If that wasn’t enough to keep me busy, I had a second full-time job—staying on track to earn a college degree.” (p. 33)

Strobl also gives the reader insight into the student’s role; he describes accounting for every minute of his day, which according to Strobl was “the key to survival” (p. 33). It’s evident that he worked hard, and was able to balance his multiple roles successfully; Pete finished with not only an under-graduate degree, but also a MBA. Impressive.

Not surprisingly in order to handle all his roles, sacrifices were made, typical of most college athletes that play for a varsity team. Strobl mentions the sacrifices that he made for his scholarship experience, primarily his social life and friendships, “Between hustling back and forth from the library, the gym, cafeteria and weight room, there wasn’t much time left for anything or anyone else” (p. 66).

Takeaway: Scholarships can provide tremendous opportunities for young athletes to study at a school they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to attend if it weren’t for their sport, or have been able to afford, not to mention the experiences that can lead to fulfilling careers. However, the key to leveraging these opportunities is for the athlete and families to weigh the pros and cons of a scholarship offer, consider all factors and potential outcomes. Frequently, the cons outweigh the pros, and student-athletes don’t realize it until well into their first year. Considerations student-athletes and parents may want to consider when evaluating athletic-scholarship options:

  • total cost of attending the school; the costs not covered by scholarship
  • risks associated with a sports scholarship (injury, performance, etc.)—consider what the outcomes might be if the scholarship was not renewed in the 2nd or 3rd year
  • fit between the athlete’s long-term career goals and what can be studied at the school, for example some programs require demanding workloads not compatible with pressures of a varsity athlete
  • academic sacrifices which may include study abroad or work-study programs, research opportunities or internships
  • value of the education associated with the school and program of study once the athlete is in the working world.

2) Leverage the Experiences Both Good and Bad
What makes the “Backspin” such an excellent read is the stories Strobl shares which are not only the highlights of his basketball career, but are of his disappointments, challenges and struggles.  His career in Europe playing for several leagues is not all glamour, but reflects hard work, with Strobl often working with a great deal of uncertainty. His job was not guaranteed for longer than a season or two, he was often in a country where he didn’t speak the language, even the same one as his coach and often had to move to another country with little more than a days notice. Yet Strobl descriptions are inspirational at the same time. Strobl appeared to make the best of every situation, for instance even when he was benched for most of a season in college (p. 47) or working for a team that was broke and wasn’t paying its athletes, he was able to turn those into positives.

Takeaway: Experiences playing as a college-athlete and beyond are filled with favorable and seemingly negative experiences, though even the negatives can be turned into circumstances for reflection that can lead to personal growth, and opportunity. This is takeaway is not a cliché when you read “Backspin”.

3)  Who’s looking Out For You?  You.
This may sound harsh, but a scholarship contract between an athlete and a school is akin to a business transaction. It’s helpful to keep in mind that coaches are paid by universities to manage and coach a team to achieve a certain level of performance, and are also under a contract. Strobl writes of many instances of very positive relationships with his coaches, and many of his coaches that provide instructive life lessons, yet there are times his experience reveal that coaches actions and decisions are not always made in best interest of the athletes.

Takeaway: Athletes need to put their needs first, and be smart about what is being offered by administrators and coaches. Getting the most value out of a scholarship opportunity is essential for the athlete and his or her family.

“Backspin” is an excellent read, and an especially informative read for any scholarship-athlete. I wanted to learn more about what Strobl did after his basketball career, which I discovered through his site thescoringfactory.com, which is a basketball development program and organization which Strobl started with his wife, also a former basketball pro that played for several European leagues. Not surprising that Strobls’ hard work, extensive experience and talent all come together in his company, The Scoring factory.

Related Reading:





What Happens When Young Athletes Have an Identity Crisis

identity-crisis-300x300Part of a child’s growing up and becoming a young adult involves developing his or her identify—a sense of self, an answer to the question ‘who am I’.  But what happens when a child or teenager develops an athletic identify – for instance ‘I am a baseball player’, or I am a tennis player’ to the exclusion of all else?

Before we examine the latter, it’s important to note the positive effects associated with children displaying an athletic identify. Children that associate themselves with a sports team, or as an athlete that plays for a team, are displaying healthy behaviours that are part the process of building a personal identify.  According to sports psychologists doing so contributes to confidence and healthy self-esteem.

Identity Foreclosure
However, here is where things can go sideways. It seems if our kids aren’t exposed to experiences that allow them to associate themselves with other roles as they are developing and maturing, they can become stuck; their emotional development is hindered.  Psychologists call this identity foreclosure, which occurs when adolescents commit to a role – i.e. an athletic sports role, ‘football player’, ‘tennis player’ [or other such as dancer, performer etc.]. Children then are at risk of committing to a direction, whether it be career path, school choice etc., based upon what they know. Hence the child  forecloses on one type of activity without knowing what else is out there. I’ve seen this manifest itself in young athletes where they express feelings of being ‘trapped’ in a sport—that they can’t envision what their life would be without it. Even if they want to try something else they are often afraid to express the desire to do so.

Sports psychologist, Dr.C. Stankovitch writes this:

For athletes, though, there is a potentially dangerous identity status that can lead to future unforeseen problems.  What I am talking about is when athletes go through an identity foreclosure status, where they prematurely and exclusively only see themselves as athletes.  When a person forecloses their identity, problems can develop since all other life development and exploration is suspended in light of the one single identity role.”   The Sports Doc

The Risks
I’ve seen this happen with one of my own kids in a sport that this child was very good at—and the effects can be quite devastating.  A young athlete who prematurely forecloses on being an “athlete” of one sport especially—a sport that is played year round, for many hours each week from an early age, to the exclusion of much else, is at risk. One psychologist outlines the risks as follows:

  • Emotional Difficulties Dealing with Injury: Injuries are an inevitable part of sport. Athletes with an exclusive athletic identity often find it difficult to cope with an injury, especially if it results in them being side-lined for a prolonged period of time. They tend to lose confidence and may experience feelings of helplessness.
  • Alternate Career or Educational Options Not Considered: If a teen selects a school or college major based upon their sport, life and career options can appear limited to the child after ‘retirement’ from the sport.
  • Difficulty Adjusting After end of Athletic Career. 

How to Help
Fortunately, in our situation we caught it early—in the early teens.  I could see in real-life what the psychologists described as foreclosure identity.  If the sport is gone my child rationalized, that I am so good at—that people know me for, who am I? I’m not good at anything else except for the sport.  Awareness of potential risks is the starting point for parents and coaches, according to Dr. Stankovitch. He suggests the following:

It is for this reason that we as adults need to make regular attempts to discuss and reinforce all facets of a kid’s personality – not just athletics.  Be sure to recognize the other roles kids often experience, like student, club member, volunteer, musician, and artist.  Holistic identity development will not limit athletic success, but it will instead enhance all facets of the human experience!  Dr. Stankovitch, The Sports Doc

Further Reading:

Parents Spend More Money on Youth Sports than Saving for College

iStock_000002308797XSmallHaving children is expensive; and these kids of ours—as cute as they are, require a significant amount of resources. I saw a sign in my bank the other day that said ‘Do you know it takes $241,080 to raise a child?’  Really. And that’s only up to the age of 18, which means the $241,080 doesn’t include money for college. Add another hundred thousand or so for college or university, at least. Caching ($). If you have more than one child, Caching, Caching ($$), and if more three kids [or more] like I do then it’s… a lot ($$$). Let’s just say it takes vast sums of the green stuff to raise a family.

Coincidently, on the same day that I spotted the sign I read an article reporting on a survey that found parents are putting a priority on spending for their kids’ sports [in this case hockey] rather than saving for their kids’ college education. It went on to say that many parents are dipping into their retirement savings to fund their kids’ extracurricular activities.

“Among the most surprising findings, Lewis said, was that 61 per cent of parents said they, or someone they know, borrowed money or used retirement savings to put a child through hockey or another extracurricular.”


“Fewer than half of Canadians are saving for a post-secondary education,” Lewis said, citing federal statistics that 45 per cent of households have RESPs. “It’s the contrast of those two … They’re [parents] prepared to go into debt to fund an extracurricular activity, and at the same time aren’t actually setting aside the money for their child’s post-secondary education.“  Cary Mills, Ottawa Citizen

Granted this article is from a Canadian newspaper, and features Canadian statistics [RESP’s are equivalent to 529 plans in the United States] however there are thousands of U.S. families in the same boat. I know many families that spend thousands of dollars each year on their children’s sports activities; expenses are not just high for participation but it’s the travel expenses that add up to the thousands.

College_graduate_studentsThen There’s College…
Unfortunately there are few families that have the yearly income to support the costs associated with competitive sports, and putting money aside each year for their kids’ college education. Higher education is not cheap as parents are fully aware. According to the College Board in the US, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2012–2013 school year was $29,056 at private colleges, $8,655 for state residents at public colleges, and $21,706 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. In Canada the average university tuition fees for one year are far less than in the United States, $5,581 per year [on average]. These fees are for tuition only, and when adding room and board, books, etc. the numbers are substantially more.

Is college/university worth it?  Even though there has been much discussion lately about the value of a college education, the employment wage statistics say absolutely yes.  Over a lifetime an individual with a college education [either a two-year or four-year degree] will earn considerably more than someone with only a high school education (Bureau of Labor Statistics).  For instance, students with a bachelor’s degree make 84% more over a lifetime than high school graduates.  

All this to say, that one of the best things parents can do for their children to set them up to be independent and successful adults is to ensure that they attend some form of higher education—whether it be for a vocational diploma from a two-year institution, an associate degree from a public college, or a four-year undergraduate education. Preparing our children for college requires more than finances, which I’ll address in another article, however having the financial resources and a funding plan is critical.

What About Sports Scholarships?
One argument parents put forth for spending money on youth sports, [especially club sports where a child is vested in the sport and is very good at it] is that the child has a chance of earning a sports scholarship that will pay for college. The rationale is to invest the money now in the child and get the payback later via a sports scholarship. Yes, it is possible, however the odds are not in favor of getting a full scholarship that will pay for even the majority of the costs associated with attending college. It’s a utopian dream for most. The statistics are not favorable for the average high school athlete that plays a varsity sport, even if they are at the top of their game. Only about 2 percent of high school athletes win sports scholarships every year at NCAA colleges and universities. There is an excellent article in the NYT that provides some statistics, and I’ve included a link below that outlines the number of scholarships schools [by division] are allowed to grant each year. Here is a snippet from the NYT articles:

“Excluding the glamour sports of football and basketball, the average N.C.A.A. athletic scholarship is nowhere near a full ride, amounting to $8,707. In sports like baseball or track and field, the number is routinely as low as $2,000. Even when football and basketball are included, the average is $10,409. Tuition and room and board for N.C.A.A. institutions often cost between $20,000 and $50,000 a year.” (NYT)

Raising children is expensive—yet saving for kids college education is one of the best expenditures parents can make during their kids 0 to 18 years, while spending on youth sports…not so much. Knowing the facts can help parents make good decisions about their kids well-being, and future.


[Parents] Use your Head: Recognizing Concussions in Young Athletes


Parents Watching Youth Football Game

Concussions happen more often, and in more sports than just Football—and it affects the health and well-being of our children. Parents know their children’s behaviour better than anyone and can identify signs of concussion early when they know what to look for.  Today’s post is by guest blogger Eddie Duncan. Eddie writes frequently about youth sports, and shares with us today some key information parents need to know about youth concussions.

Over the past several years there have been an increasing amount of attention around concussions and other traumatic brain injuries in the media.  And it’s not just big head-to-head collisions in the NFL that brings the topic to the forefront.  More and more stories of concussions in young athletes across the country from grade school to high school, have come to surface.

Fortunately, the medical community has given players and coaches’ tools and information necessary to more thoroughly recognize and treat concussion symptoms.  But unfortunately, many programs overlook symptoms to push athletes to perform, or players ignore signs, brushing them off in fear of losing play time or being cut.

Because of this, responsibility ultimately falls on parents to know how to recognize early signs of concussions, beyond the “big hit”.  They are the ones closet to their child and know how they act and behave on a regular basis. Catching symptoms before the young athlete gets back on the field or court can save them from further injury, long-term neurological disorders, paralysis, or worse.

Signs for Parents to Watch
Watching a child take a big hit in a game is nothing easy to swallow for parents, and there’s always a sigh of relief when the child gets up unscathed. But concussions go unseen.  Signs and symptoms can show up immediately or may take hours to be noticed.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says to look out for these signs after a big hit:

  • Difficulty thinking clearly, concentrating, or remembering
  • Feeling slowed down or hazy
  • Headaches or a feeling of pressure
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Balance issues
  • Blurry vision or sensitivity to light
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Irritability, sadness, nervous, or generally more emotional
  • Sleep issues:  too much or too little

More Awareness Benefits Everyone
There is good news.  Over 42 states have passed laws to reduce concussions in youth sports. Many parents have to sign concussion information forms before their child can participate each season.  And many coaches have to attend concussion training sessions and are required to pull athletes from the game if showing any symptoms of brain trauma.  In addition to education on what signs to report, athletes also need to know that it’s okay to miss out on some play today if it means they can play more down the road.

As more awareness develops, more youth will be able to more fully enjoy their favorite sports, more coaches will retain competitive players, and more parents will enjoy seeing their athletes shine.  Remind your players to keep their head in the game, just not literally.

Eddie Duncan is a Senior Editor at Direct2tv and loves to write and research about youth sports.

For more information on how to keep your kids safe visit The Network for Public Health Law and STOP Sports Injuries.

Image Credit: By Chiew Pang, Flickr

Game On! How Youth Sports is Failing our Kids


Game On! by Tim Farrey: http://www.tomfarrey.com

Why do North American kids participate in Youth Sports? One would like to think that kids are playing sports to have fun, develop skills, and even pick up a few core values along the way, like good sportsmanship. Unfortunately this is no longer a given. Youth sports in today’s culture is a far cry from days past when kids played locally with friends from their own neighborhood, or on a community team for a season that lasted four months out of the year [not twelve]. Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children by Tim Farrey bares the truth about what’s behind youth sports, prompting readers to think about what is going on with our kids. Really, quite an eye-opener.

Youth sports is not always about the kids, but it is about the adults; adults with their own agendas. Game On is an essential read for coaches, parents, and a must read for anyone else involved with youth. I’ve read numerous books on this topic, and Farrey’s book is the best I’ve read because of the startling facts he provides, the breadth and depth of his research, and how he tells the story. In this article I’ll provide an overview of the book, and review one of the most provocative of chapters, The Man about a sixth grader and his NBA dream.

Non-fiction books can be a dry [and dull] read, not Game On. Farrey gives the reader not just snippets of facts and anecdotes to support his points, but full stories. And robust stories they are; all true, which at times is disconcerting, especially when reading of young athletes that were pushed, pressured and in some instances taken advantage of.

Farrey also affirmed the premise that some elite young athletes do have physical advantages over their competitors; physical gifts they are born with, (I wrote in a previous blog post about this topic – nature vs. nurture). Interesting is the fact that companies now market a technology to test DNA of children, sports gene testing, to see what sports they are ‘built’ for. Farrey writes about his travels to Australia to have his youngest son’s DNA  tested.

Yet, some kids are identified as super stars at very young ages, though it may not be due to innate talent. These kids are singled out as gifted because they are stronger and more physically mature than their peers – they have reached puberty at an early age. This fact is highlighted as MYTH in the book, [of which there is one MYTH and TRUTH in the sidebar of each chapter]. Below is the MYTH and TRUTH in chapter eight:

MYTH No. 8: Grade-school travel teams identify future stars. THE TRUTH: They reward early bloomers, leaving the rest behind.

Farrey tells a story about a young sixth grader, J-Mike, in the chapter titled The Man who matured early and was significantly taller than his peers. J-Mike was a star basketball player [at the end of sixth grade] and as a result was on a basketball scouting roster, Hoop Scoop which ranks middle and high school kids by their playing ability and game stats. This ‘service’ is linked to the premiere [expensive] basketball camp, Jr. Phenom Camp which is marketed to middle-school students [these two businesses work together quite well it seems, each mentioning the other on its website]. Think of a sixth grader, at the age ten ranked against his peers, including stats on height and weight. Of no surprise, J-Mike experienced many challenges as a result of his number one status, especially when his peers started catching up to him in size.

2727062058_c31828f69b_nAnother startling ‘truth’ presented in the book is United States approach to athlete development. Farrey uses the example of how coaches are trained [or not trained] to illustrate the glaring difference between the US and other countries. In the US few youth coaches complete any formal training — many are parents and volunteers that at best, have attended a three-day workshop. In club sports, even though many coaches are in paid positions, it still does not guarantee that they have received training in child development, sports medicine or kinesiology.  In Europe and other countries, coaching is held to a higher level of professional standard; extensive training in sports medicine, child development and  psychology is provided. Not so in the US as demonstrated by a research report prepared for the American College of Sports Medicine in 2006. The study revealed that many coaches used disciplinary techniques that were not developmentally appropriate for elementary and middle school age kids. Results from the survey revealed the following measures used by coaches to discipline youth participants: extra exercise (64 percent), verbal scolding (42 percent), public embarrassment (18 percent), and suspension (8 percent).

What to do?
It’s no wonder that most kids stop participating in organized sports by the age of twelve, and that we have the problems we do with overweight and inactive kids. There are solutions however, many organizations, parents and volunteers are working hard to keep our kids active. Farrey devotes the last chapter to potential solutions to this problem. Though it takes a village, as the saying goes to raise a child, and they need our help. Awareness is the first step towards positive change in youth sports. I encourage readers to pick up the book (link below), and/or do some further research about youth sports, and ask questions of coaches and sports administrators. For parents, perhaps finding alternate teams that provide a safe and fun environment that focuses on participation for all. Our kids need us, adults shouldn’t need the kids.

Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children, (2008) Tim Farrey
STOP Sports Injuries, www.stopsportsinjuries.org
The Aspen Institute, Sports and Society Program

Money, College Athletics and Academics: Why they Don’t Mix

Headlines this week within the sports and higher education circles centered on University of Maryland’s Football program that plans to switch conferences, join the Big 10. The reason? Cash, cold hard cash. Apparently Maryland’s athletics programs have been running a deficit of $5 million a year, and are having a hard time making ends meet. Though the headline of this blog post states we shouldn’t‘ care, I suggest we should care, but more about how college athletics dominates and overshadows academics and the education of college kids. Furthermore in Division I and Ivy league schools, sports programs have been known to influence the institutions’ decisions, policies and sometimes even better judgement. It’s about money – money driven by sports fans, television contracts and endorsements, all at the expense of academics.

Let’s look at the parallels between college athletics and college academics to examine why this focus is wrong. Wrong because the focus and attention given to athletic programs (football and basketball for the most part) is totally out of whack. Higher education institutions are in big trouble, with tuition rates that are out of control and shrinking funds for public institutions. Yet the trouble is more than financial. Parents, students and employers are questioning the value of a college degree. Even more so now as students are unable to find jobs when they graduate, and have a boat load of debt. Employers lament that college graduates aren’t skilled for the jobs that they need to fill, can’t communicate effectively or think critically.  Many say higher education is in a bubble, and that bubble is going to burst soon. It is unsustainable. Not to mention that the traditional modes of higher education appear unable to adapt to the needs of our global and digital culture.

Ohio State University, Stadium. The fourth largest football stadium in the United States

The Cost of College Athletics
College athletics programs are expensive to run and the majority of programs don’t generate profits. Building stadiums to hold the fans is expensive (granted stadiums are usually funded with outside donations and ticket sales). So is building athletic facilities for teams, training equipment, coaches salaries, and of course conference fees. Don’t forget the administrative costs, travel costs, and if a school breaks NCAA rules or the law, there are court fees, payouts, lawyer fees etc.  It’s expensive. No wonder there are deficits.  This is why University of Maryland jumped ship and went to the Big 10. The athletics department was running a deficit as mentioned above, which forced them to cut seven of its 27 varsity sports teams this past summer. Yet things are looking much brighter this month with an infusion of cash on its way. And according to University of Maryland, “By being members of the Big Ten Conference, we will be able to ensure the financial sustainability of Maryland athletics for decades to come.Yet higher education institutions may look much different in decades to come.

The Academic Deficit
Financial: Off the field and in the lecture halls, we have problems too. Tuition for higher education as increased over 1,000% since 1978, far outpacing the cost of other consumable good or service, including medical care. Yet the quality of education is declining, the current system is failing, falling under a mound of debt that is being passed on to students.  Student debt is an economic concern, more than two-thirds of student graduate with significant debt load and many are unable to find full-time jobs.

The academic performance of students is also declining in a big way. SAT scores for 2011 declined for the third year in row, and students do less work in college now than ever before. The bright side is there are numerous models of education for higher ed coming forth that defy traditional education models. These new models focus on lowering costs, increasing access for students and improving quality. These schools focus on student learning, attempt to fix the system by preparing students for jobs of the 21st century. Higher ed needs to reform and adapt to meet the needs of today’s students. Does college athletics fit into this new model?

What is more Important?
I believe [sadly] that if the public were surveyed about what would be more important, either saving academic programs of a school or the football program (or basketball), that a significant number would vote for the sports programs. Yes, we have a problem. We need to start asking questions to solve this problem – what is the purpose of higher education? What is the role of college sports programs in academic institutions? How are students being served by college sports? These questions have no easy answers.  I’ve included several articles and statistics below that readers may find interesting and helpful when considering these questions. My goal is to motivate readers to support academics, promote scholarship and help prepare our young people so that they become good citizens, self-sufficient adults, and life-long learners. Does a multimillion dollar college football program contribute to this?

Innovative Higher Ed Institutions (some without college athletic programs)
Inventing a New Kind of College, by Emily Hanford, American RadioWorks
University Now, Making Higher Education Affordable to Everyone
Southern New Hampshire University, Innovation U

Related Articles:
Expansion by Big 10 may Bring Small Playoff, New York Times Blog
Student Loan Debt Statistics, American Student Assistance
College Sports Deluxe: The Golf Team, WSJ

Photo Credits:
Money, By 401K2012’s photo stream, Flickr, Ohio State Stadium, by mjum’s photo stream, Flickr

When is it Too young and Too soon for Endurance Events?

Competing in endurance events like marathons and triathlons is fun, exciting, fulfilling, though at times is grueling and arduous. The grueling aspects can be the heavy weeks of training and even the race itself. Not only from a physical aspect, but an emotional one.

If this is true for adult athletes what about youth athletes? When are athletes considered too young to compete in endurance events? And, what is the parents’ role when a child wants to compete in physically demanding events? Should there be an age minimum set by race organizers? These are interesting questions for parents, coaches and sports enthusiasts. To stimulate thought and discussion, I’ve included here, stories of pre-adolescent children competing in events that most adults would find challenging if not unimaginable.

Story One: The ‘Pixie’ Runners
I came across a news story recently that provides a real life, yet extreme example of young athletes competing in such events. It goes like this, two young girls, sisters, age ten and twelve compete in endurance events, marathons, half marathons, and triathlons. They compete in tough events; trail marathons [full and half] and shorter races, usually consisting of difficult trails in high altitudes. The older child, Kaytlynn, petite and tiny, weighing not more than sixty pounds competed in over ninety events in the last two years. Her sister, apparently not as ‘serious’ as her older sister, competed in just over seventy.

Kaytlynn at age 11, after completing the full marathon in Texas, Cedar Horn

According to the NYT article, the girls often cry during their races, even after if they don’t win, or when they are hurt. Though Kaytlynn does enjoy running, she says this, “running is fun, even though it hurts sometimes” and, she continues, “it makes a purpose in my life.” Click here for the full story, and here for a slide show of these [adorable] girls (Bearak, 2012).

I find this story disturbing for several reasons. I’ve competed and trained for several half and full marathons, and know the physical and time commitments required. The benefits of training hard are worth the effort, yet I only run three or four endurance events a year. These children are running every other weekend.  I wonder how these kids will feel about running when they are teenagers, and even more importantly, what kind of relationship they will have with their parents.  What do you think the role of the parents should be in this situation? Should they be encouraging their girls as this father appears to do, or should they restrict the participation even though Kaytlynn loves running and is obviously a gifted athlete?

View of Alcatraz on the water.
1.5mi from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park, more mileage if swimming against currents

Story Two: Seven-year Old Goes to Alcatraz
Seven-year old boy, Braxton of Arizona, was the youngest ever to swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco’s Aquatic Park back in 2006. According to the news story, the young swimmer got the idea after reading an article in a magazine about a nine-year old who had just completed the swim (this seems a stretch that a seven-year old is reading magazine articles, however…). The boy approached his swim coach, the coach agreed to help him prepare, and training preparation began [I’m assuming with his parents support].

The boy trained for two hours a day, four times a week. He also completed training swims in several Arizona lakes and completed a trip to the San Francisco Bay the month before the race to prepare for the event.  In an interview before the event, Braxton said this, “It kind of seems like a long way, but I’m not totally worried. It’s not that far.” (AP, 2006)

What do you think?
What do you think of these two stories? It’s hard not to be impressed by these amazing feats …. if done by adults, yet for young children not fully developed, physically and emotionally?  The risks associated with competing and training for endurance events are numerous including, injury, chronic fatigue and burnout. These are all exacerbated when there is little down time between each; training then becomes a ‘job’, and not simply a hobby or pastime. When training comes first, and significant time and financial resources are devoted to it, the ‘fun’ and enjoyment is in danger of wearing a bit thin. I have mixed feelings about young athletes competing in endurance events; in these stories above I don’t think it’s healthy, yet on a smaller scare? Perhaps. My daughter competed in a half marathon when she was fifteen, and it was a positive experience, yet I won’t let her compete in a full marathon until she turns eighteen.

What do you think of these unique and athletically gifted children? Share your thoughts with a comment if you are so inclined.

Photo Credits: 1) Young Runner, by Toronto Rob (Flickr), 2) Kaytlynn, Fiftystatesmarathon, (Flickr),  3) Alcatraz, luxomedia’s photostream (Flickr),