Where Does It End: National Championships For 8-Year Olds?

Ruth FrantzContributor IJuly 31, 2009

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 25:  Children play soccer as a part of the Optus Small Sided Football program announcment between Football Federation Australia (FFA) and Optus at Heffron Park on July 25, 2009 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

I'll be the first to gush about how much I love youth sports.  I started rowing at the age of 12, though I was hardly competitive considering I barely broke five feet tall, but I was rowing nonetheless.  I love watching Pee-Wee football or the Little League World Series.  Watching those mini-adults who have so much love for the game and their teammates sans the monetary payoff is just plain inspiring. But have we gone too far?

After reading Tom Farrey's book Game On, I wonder how much is too much? Farrey's searching leads him to watching 4-year old girls competitive ice hockey and 8-year old boys playing for an AAU national championship who couldn't even define the word 'national' (however, it was hardly national seeing as all you needed to be there was a $300 by-in and stay in the hotel that sponsored the event).

Where will it end?  There are plenty of videos out there of Tiger Woods putting before he could walk.  And parents see the zeros after his name these days. Obviously the correlation there is the earlier the better.

But that may not be the case. One thing we don't realize, is that athletes like Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps (who catapulted into a household name after winning a record breaking eight gold medals in Beijing), are the exceptions, not the rules. Woods and Phelps were lucky enough to have both the athletic capability in the sports they loved, and the drive to succeed.

Kids in the U.S. these days are leaving sports in droves at the ripe old age of 13.  Mostly from burnout.  Or because they were late bloomers and got relegated to the 'B' squad while the rest of their friends joined the travel team. These children that could have a lifelong love of a sport leave it after one, two, or even five years because they didn't have the best experience. And rarely do they ever try again. At 13 they decide to put organized sports on the back burner and pick up Nintendo, World of Warcraft or worse yet-drugs and alcohol.

We as a nation want to get children started as early as possible to have the best opportunities to make it to the big time, but we may be hindering them for the rest of their lives by doing so. Teenagers are the least active age group in our nation. And yet studies show that obesity rates are on the rise for adults who weren't active in their teenage years.

It's not that we need to force our children into the pool before they can talk, or to go outside and kick a ball around until it gets dark, but rather let them play a variety of sports.  Cut out competitive travel teams before the age of 14. Help children find a sport that fits them best.

Though athletic events like the Little League World Series are hoot to watch and usually keep us on the edge of our seats, its events like that, the pressure of events like that at the age of 11, that burn kids out.

I was lucky enough to fall into rowing where the odds of getting a college scholarship are 1-1. I was able to find a sport I love and continue reaping the benefits on into my early adulthood.  I exercise almost daily and have decent nutrition.  I play well with others and still love sports. Kids that are pushed too hard too early, may not be so lucky. 

So where will it end? Or when?  Are we going to have T-ball World Series? For kids under the age of 3?  We are an anxiety riddled nation and we wonder why.  Kids have enough pressure on them as is, why add to it? Leave the sports to the pros and leave the children to their childhood.