Parents of Athletes: Stop the Insanity–It’s Time to Take Back Holidays!

Breaks from sports practice around holidays provide a rare opportunity for young athletes to recharge, rest and recover, but more importantly give families time to reconnect. Not so for many athletes participating at the club level in sports such as swimming, gymnastics, wrestling, diving, among others, where breaks are used for intense practices and training. This article outlines why it’s time to take holidays back; stop the insanity before it’s too late.

stop-sign-2It seems like just yesterday I was driving my daughter to swim practice during Christmas break—every day of Christmas break for 7 AM practices with only two days off—Christmas and New Year’s.  Practices were grueling (2 ½ hours) too according to my daughter.  She was 10 at the time, in a group of swimmers’ ages 9 through 12. The kids in the older groups swam more; some had double workouts of morning and evening practices. The club viewed breaks from school as a chance to get in intense training.  Unfortunately I, along with 99% of the parents, bought into the madness. Looking back, well over eight years ago now, I realize the insanity of it all. Swim clubs are notorious for driving the kids hard, 12 months of the year with little more than a two-week break at the end of the summer. Taking holidays during breaks was frowned upon, to the point that most kids were afraid to miss any practices.  Though our family’s experience with year-round training was exclusive to swimming, other club sports follow similar patterns e.g. gymnastics, diving, baseball, cheer leading, wrestling, among others. Most clubs state outright on their websites the training schedules take place over breaks—Christmas and summer. Some are explicit in describing the nature of the workouts, like this High School wrestling team:

“Practices during Christmas break are focused and intensive. Christmas holiday practices are not mandatory, but highly recommended to make a significant difference once season commences in January”.   — St. Mary’s Wrestling Team,  Titans Wrestling

It might as well read something like this, ‘Merry Christmas junior, you are going to practice intensely all Christmas break so you can kick butt in January. And if you even think about taking a day off, think again’.  Some teams are more subtle like this swim club, “a special schedule will be provided to members for the Christmas and New Year’s Holidays” — Malvern Swimming, PA. 

Why the Insanity?
There are really only a few reasons why there is such a phenomenon. The philosophical answer is the culture of youth sports with the emphasis on sports specialization as well as the focus on competitiveness (of which parents to some degree are responsible), creates a culture of intense pressure for clubs and coaches and thus athletes experience pressure to attend year-round practices and perform.

The practical answer comes down club revenue, and in some instances coaches’ salaries—hence it comes down to money.  Youth sports clubs are run like businesses whether for-profit or not, and the majority depend upon a 12-month revenue stream.  In some instances coaches are incentivized based upon how individual athletes, or the team performs. This is the case for some swim clubs, and there’s evidence this system exists in other youth sports, and college sports even more so (Cheer Professional, Duggan, Lopiano).

Specific to swimming, a coach can potentially earn a financial bonus (and prestige) on the backs of high-performing swimmers.  Swim clubs within USA Swimming also receive awards, Club Excellence Programs, that includes a criteria of high performing swimmers. This structure is not ideal. If we look at it one way, the child becomes similar to a commodity, like a stock, yet the performance of the stock depends upon its fitness and performance level of which coaches influence (Mullen, 2014). Ugh. Not to say that coaches are earning big bucks, most are not, but the incentives are in all the wrong places.

…And It Continues into College
This pressing, obsessive training behavior for young athletes continues into college—for kids that join a college team regardless of whether it’s a Division I, II or III team.

A good, albeit disturbing example of intense sports training over break is the swim team at UNCW (University of North Carolina Wilmington).  An excerpt from an article titled “UNCW’s holiday swim training is brutal, but necessary“:

Since the 1980s, UNCW coach David Allen has been running his teams through this gauntlet in preparation for the conference championships. 

During Christmas Training sessions, UNCW swimmers average between seven and nine miles in the water.  The team first trains from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., working mostly on endurance. After a meal and a few hours sleep, the group returns to the pool from 7:30-9:30 p.m. for power and speed training.

“As I tell the swimmers and those who’ve been with me now for a few years, during that time, I turn my sensitivity switch off. I’m a bulldog when it comes to training,” Allen said.

“I tell them, ‘We’re going to train. And, when you’re at home in preparation, you need to get yourself ready because when you come back here I don’t want any excuses. You get in the pool and you swim. And if you can’t, go home.’ That’s the approach we take.”

One  might wonder what the goal of this training is—perhaps to prepare for the Olympic Trials so swimmers might quality for the US Olympic team?  Nope. The coach’s goal is to win the coveted conference title:

 Allen notes his goal every year is to get the conference title. It’s the only meet that is guaranteed to give out a trophy – and that’s a prize he wants. (Riley, 2014)

It’s no wonder that results from a panel conducted with NCAA college athletes cited “time off during off-season” as their number one recommendation for reforming college sports (New, 2015).

Take it Back!
This behavior of intense sports practices for young athletes during breaks is none less than destructive. Not only does it rob kids of time with families, time to rest and recover but it can lead to psychological stress, injury and patterns of behaviors that undermine health and well-being.  Parents, it’s time to stop the insanity and take holiday time with your kids back!

Further Reading:

 

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