SPORTS AND ATHLETICS ARE NO LONGER SEEN SIMPLY AS A CHILD'S LEISURE ACIVITIES

By JOANNE RICHARD
SPECIAL TO THE TORONTO SUN ... Sept. 22, 2003

When do sports stop being fun for kids? Seems when parents get involved.

According to one leading expert, parental over-involvement is rampant in organized kids' athletics and "demanding, intense and even abusive" experiences are common.

"Kids sports have become professionalized and adults, parents in particular, are too involved in something that should be fun. They're stealing the kids' pleasure and childhoods," says New York child psychiatrist Dr. Rosenfeld.

Toronto's Dr. Sender Deutsch agrees: He not only trains amateur and professional athletes, but he also refereed hockey for a number of years.

"The parents' behaviour I witnessed was unbelievable -- I was yelled at and my life was threatened. There were some nights I didn't know if I would be leaving the rink dead or alive. I quit refereeing because of the parents.

"Kids would be better off if parents stayed home -- just drop them off and leave," advises Deutsch, director of SHAPE Health and Wellness Centre on Davenport.

TROUBLING PHENOMENON

Over-involved parents pushing their kids to excel, many with hopes and dreams of them making it to the pros or even the Olympics, is a growing and troubling phenomenon -- "and prevalent, especially in hockey," says Deutsch.

"Sports is supposed to be about having fun, teamwork, exercise and being the best you can be -- not the best the parents want them to be," he adds. "Pushing kids beyond the brink takes the fun out of everything."

Most organized leagues today are not focused on the joy of playing sports with friends, but on winning -- big and at all costs, agree the experts.

And just how emotionally charged the sporting arenas have become was highlighted last week when a 38-year-old Windsor father was charged for allegedly assaulting his 10-year-old daughter for her performance on ice in a competitive boys hockey league.

Appalling parental behaviour in sports doesn't surprise Rosenfeld: "It goes on every day in every sport -- the profanity and expletives used at other parents, coaches and referees goes on all the time," says Rosenfeld, adding there are also an increasing number of physical attacks on coaches and referees by unruly, anxious, pushy parents.

"Sadly, it's a sign of the times and an unfortunate denigration of the importance of play for children. Play is being made into work and, for some parents, sports are seen as the ticket to elite schools."

According to Canada's leading parenting educator Kathy Lynn, "coaches tell me often that the kids are fabulous, it's the parents who are the problem."

She says, "it's totally unfair to our children putting that kind of pressure on them when all they really want to do is play and enjoy the game.

"We have to be careful to recognize that when kids are playing sports that they are doing their best -- parents have to remember that it's just a game and not the end of the world," says Lynn. "Our job as a parent is to offer praise and be encouraging when they play a game, not beating on them -- and that means not only physically, but verbally too."

Lynn, of parentingtoday.ca, says that the drive to excel must come from within the child, not the parent. "Parents are pushing their kids too much instead of relaxing and having a good time," she says.

According to Rosenfeld, "once upon a time there was a children's world, as in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, where kids were the bosses who could do what they wanted to.

Playing fields used to be part of this children's world, even for parents who loved sports. Today, many have become places where adults congregate to see how their children measure up in the early phases of the race to Harvard."

AMBITIOUS PARENTS

He says that ambitious parents believe that you have to start sports enrichment early and combine it with intense devotion. "We idolize the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods, but is this a good thing? We sit 12-month-olds down with a set of golf clubs to watch golf swings -- but it's not called child abuse, we call it enrichment," says Rosenfeld, founder of National Family Night (www.nationalfamilynight.org) and author of The Over-Scheduled Child.

Parents enroll six-year-olds in competitive soccer, "even though these kids are too young to understand its rules or master the complex physical challenges of controlling a ball while running down a field -- or, sometimes, even which goal they are aiming at," says Rosenfeld.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned parents about the dangers of competing in demanding, incredibly competitive sports. "They strongly advised that children play multiple sports and specialize in one, if they must, only after puberty," he adds.

Rosenfeld says that he admires elite athletes "but holding up the fanaticism that goes into winning Olympic gold as a model for every other kid to emulate offers a dangerous psychological message: Everything in life should be sacrificed for Olympic gold. Many play, few win. Most of us will enjoy sports; few of us will be pros. We will have peak experiences in our lives ... every decade or two!"

Deutsch agrees: "Less than 1% make it to the pros. But some parents have invested heavily in time and money, especially with elite athletes, and they want a return on their investment. It's their ticket to making it big."

Meanwhile, Deutsch asks, "just what kind of role models are these parents being?"

"Kids emulate parents and coaches, but are they modeling admirable behaviour?" adds Rosenfeld.

And he says that when kids' sports get too intense, what gets sacrificed "is the fun kids can have playing, the ease they can get with their bodies, and the idea that everyone can get pleasure from athletics at every age, whether chosen first or last, whether in childhood, adulthood, or old age."