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:


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:

Game On! How Youth Sports is Failing our Kids


Game On! by Tim Farrey:

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,
The Aspen Institute, Sports and Society Program