Child Sport Stars
- Early Preparation and Training
- Demands Made on Young Athletes
- What Is the Degree of Risk
- Young Female Superstars
Success at the highest levels in many sports depends on early entry, early specialization, year-round training, and frequent competition. Achievement in sport at elite levels and in professional sport may often be accompanied by lucrative financial rewards, college scholarships, and celebrity, and the drive toward such ends often means children are committed to intense training, with a singular focus on one sport at a young age. National and international media coverage of superior accomplishment by other young athletes often serves as a powerful incentive for parents to enroll young children in competitive programs; efforts to outdo predecessors and outperform contemporaries reflect the ethos of competitive sport.When children are identified as future champions, specialized training soon follows in a systematic, intensive approach to training regimens and competitions, even when the probability of reaching the highest levels of athletic achievement is exceedingly low.
Early Preparation and Training
Preparation for careers in elite sport, as for those in dance or music, begins in childhood, often long before athletes are able to make decisions for themselves. Decisions are made by parents and coaches when children remain entirely under their control. The selection processes for most Olympic sports attempt to identify future champions at the earliest possible age, so that the young athletes may begin specialized training in organized programs as soon as possible. For sports such as women’s gymnastics and figure skating, where world and Olympic champions are generally crowned in their teens, rigorous training begins at the first opportunity, even in toddlerhood.
Early experiences are crucial to the development of children in sport.When such experiences are positive, children will likely continue involvement. In organized, competitive sport, children are introduced to adultcontrolled, structured sport with formalized rules, uniforms, and an environment governed by winning. Many parents view such experiences not only as necessary for the development of future world champions, but also for the instrumental objectives of teaching their children values and skills that may help them later in life.
Organized, competitive sports emphasize winning. Experiences with winning and losing may be seen as valuable learning opportunities for children, and certainly, some children thrive in competitive environments, finding such experiences exciting and rewarding. Organized sport may fulfill many important needs for children, such as affiliation, challenge, skill development, success, status, as well as fitness.
Demands Made on Young Athletes
While the benefits of organized, competitive sport serve as positive experiences for some children, the pressures inherent in highly competitive environments may have adverse effects on children’s growth and development and may hinder even potential world champions and professional athletes from developing their talents.The demanding commitment, intensive training, and early and frequent competition of talented young athletes necessarily requires schedules that would be extreme for most adults. There are physical, psychological, and social pressures on young athletes that raise concerns about their health and safety both during childhood and later on in adulthood. Negative experiences early on in sport also may lead to burnout and a complete loss of interest in physical activity, sometimes for a lifetime.
Heavy training loads, early sport-specific training, inadequate rest periods, and the pressure to train and compete while injured increase the risk of impaired skeletal development and permanent deformity. The risks of injury rise as training increases in frequency, duration, intensity, and technical difficulty; they may also be attributed to the age-related vulnerability of the immature skeletal system. Children are poor thermoregulators and are highly susceptible to dehydration and heat-related illnesses. Growth itself may increase children’s susceptibility to injury, since growth spurts may interfere with balance and coordination and decrease flexibility.Training for judged sports such as gymnastics and figure skating, as well as those sports with weight classes such as wrestling and rowing, involve severe caloric restrictions in attempts to improve performance. Paradoxically, in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage, such limited nutritional intake may result in muscle weakness, compromised bone density, iron deficiency, and menstrual irregularities.
Despite assertions by organizations such as the International Federation of Sport and the American Academy of Pediatrics that intensive training of children has no physiological or educational justification, and that diversity of movement and all-round physical conditioning should have priority over later specialization, promising young athletes continue to be inducted into highperformance sport. While advocates of children’s organized sport promote peer socialization as one of the benefits, not all sports provide such opportunity, at least not during training itself. One young swimmer spoke of the sensory deprivation experienced while he was training: “You can neither hear not [sic] see while you swim. You can see next to nothing and the only taste is chlorine! In truth, to the outsider, the only social side to swimming training is a shared mutual discomfort” (Juba 1986, 174). Juba calls the pressure ambitious parents place on their children “parental projection,” since such parents view their children as extensions of themselves and perhaps their own missed opportunities.Tofler et al. (1996) refer to this as “achievement by proxy.” The importance parents place on swimming within the framework of their lives—both in terms of time and financially —turns into pressure on the children, for example.
Omo Grüpe on Children in Elite Sport
Sport scientist Omo Grüpe has written that children in top-level sport:
- Are not permitted to be children
- Are denied important social contacts and experiences
- Are victims of disrupted family life
- Are exposed to excessive psychological and physiological stress
- May experience impaired intellectual development
- Are detached from larger society n Face a type of abandonment upon exiting their athletic careers
Source: Grüpe, O. (1988).Top-level sports for children from an education viewpoint. International Journal of Physical Education, 22(1): 225–226.
What Is the Degree of Risk?
Experience suggests that some degree of harm is an inevitable component of almost all activities. However, in some environments harm appears to be more prevalent than in others. Competitive sport, particularly at the highest levels of performance, seems to involve significant risk of injury—significant in both frequency and degree. Young athletes suffer a wide array of injuries while training and in competition. In high-performance sport, elements such as injuries, fatigue, and even bad weather rarely interfere with an athlete’s participation except in extreme circumstances. Given the intense demands of high-performance sport and the vulnerable nature of children’s developing bodies and minds, such excessive cognitive and physiological demands may overburden a child, resulting in harm. The effects of this harm on the shaping of a child’s identity and on the child’s future are difficult to predict.
Young Female Superstars
There are a number of examples of young female athletes who reached the heights of stardom and of athletic success at very young ages. Athletes such as tennis players Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati, gymnasts Dominique Moceanu and her predecessors Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut, figure skaters Tara Lipinski, Michelle Qwan, and Sarah Hughes are or have been household names around the world. While many of these athletes have achieved remarkable success at exceedingly young ages, many of their careers are known also for their personal struggles.
Olympic gold medallist Dominique Moceanu began her gymnastics training as a toddler.With both parents former elite-level gymnasts, there seemed to be no doubt that she would follow in their footsteps. Before the age of five, her parents had already asked renowned coach Bela Karolyi to take Dominique on as a pupil, which he did not long thereafter. Dominique’s life was focused on gymnastics throughout childhood. By the age of ten, and the youngest qualifier at the United States Nationals, she won a gold medal on the balance beam. That early success continued as she went on to win more gold medals at the Nationals in future years, including becoming the youngest national champion in gymnastics history. At fourteen, Dominique won an Olympic gold medal in the team competition, and finished eight all-around. After the Olympics, Dominique spent time outside the sport for the first time in her life, making the rounds of the talk show circuit, dabbling briefly in modeling, and living under intense media scrutiny.This combination, along with coping with lingering injuries, her sudden growth spurt of six inches, as well as dealing with significant parental problems, left Dominique struggling to continue her career in gymnastics. She sued her parents for squandering her trust fund, money earned in her professional career from the age of ten. A restraining order against her parents was put in place, and Dominique told the world that she had never had a childhood. Following those events, Dominique never regained her top form.
Child sport stars live, train, and compete in a world that is demanding and ruthlessly competitive. They dedicate, if not sacrifice, one of the most crucial phases of their lives in the quest for success as world or Olympic champion or for a career as a professional athlete. It is essential to remember that while they may be highly competent and talented in the specialized requirements of their sport, as children they remain unaware of their own limitations, susceptibility to injury, and the longterm consequences of injuries to their futures. They should be treated and protected as children first—and as athletes second.
See also Academies and Camps, Sports; Elite Sports Parents; Play vs. Organized Sport; Youth Sports