King Sport

High-school athletics are intense. They hold children to an impossible standard of perfection. A near-professional commitment is expected. A single-minded devotion is a pre-requisite for keeping up.

Athletes train each day during a season. They travel to after-school or daylong competitions both on school days and on weekends. This often results in being gone from home for as many as 12 hours a day, on five or six days a week. When will they do homework? Play the violin? Relax?

Athletics become paramount, to the exclusion of most other things. A heavy academic load, with rigorous courses, becomes difficult to carry. Extra-curricular activities of a different nature – learning an instrument, painting lessons – are hard to maintain. To say nothing about just being – playing a board game with your siblings, taking a walk in the park, talking big ideas with friends, as young people would…

This high-intensity existence might be a way to weed out the weak. But what a cruel thought.

The madness starts early on. Children as young as 3 are placed on teams, in fear that if they do not commit themselves to a sport early enough, they will be left behind.

Yet it ultimately makes no difference. The percent of the population excelling, and making it big, in professional sports remains constant. And low.

The organized nature of children’s lives can, indeed, impede socialization – learning how to interact with people in ordinary situations, how to manage the daily course of life.

You can tell me, of course, that athletics teaches, too – by learning to work with a team, resolve conflict, persevere, even by socializing on the sidelines with friends.

Likely, you are right.

But I am not convinced that the super-competitive, relentless nature of it, the unrelieved, unrealistic ambition to achieve, to win at almost any cost, is unequivocally good for either young bodies or young minds.

Pushing yourself to achieve your best can result in personal growth, yes. But huge stress and the loss of perspective can also harm.

Unrelieved devotion to a sport hampers versatility. Even in a school with a wide slate of offerings, true choice becomes an illusion. With only so many hours in a day and so many slots in a schedule, it is nearly impossible to excel in both basketball and math.

Children are forced to specialize and profile themselves: the geeks and the jocks. Cliques emerge. School becomes socially stratified; a mirror, a mini-model, of a class society at large.

Burnout among high-school athletes is high. As competitiveness ratchets up and the team feeder pipeline narrows, athletes drop out. How many who played basketball as freshmen still do as seniors?

They drop a sport, and they never again pick it up.

As physical education classes get cut (a separate but related matter) and most physical activity that children engage in is channeled instead into competitive sports, how many acquire the life-long love for physical activity, the habits that keep us fit for life? How many instead turn into spectators, glued to the couch, TV remote in hand to catch each game that the cable system offers?

Now picture my vision – a memory, in fact – of children kicking a ball in the school yard at recess or after school.

Those children were us.

You can still see this sight in Europe (or Latin America, or Asia Minor…).

“They” play team sports, too, in clubs or just for fun. The talented athletes find ways to excel. The rest receive the benefit of engaging in a physical activity they love, without it taking over their entire life.

So “we” drop all sports, and our waistlines sprawl.

“They,” all grown-up in due time, keep kicking that ball in the neighborhood park.

Kremena Spengler is a former academic and journalist with the BTA, the Bulgarian national news agency, and Reuters. After a bit of world travel, she moved to live a quiet life and raise children in New Ulm, joining The Journal in 1997. She likes to think her views are not that unusual for a naturalized American.