Bobby is an 11-year-old boy that plays goalie for his travel hockey team. The team often plays games that start around 8PM and don’t finish until around 9:30PM. By the time he gets his gear off and packed and catches a ride home it might not be until 11PM that he gets a chance to go to bed. I said has a chance to go to bed because Bobby has a hard time falling a sleep.
Bobby’s mom calls her sister (the health nut) while grocery shopping the next day and asks what type of melatonin supplement would help her son sleep better? The sister is taken aback and politely suggests that children should not be taking melatonin, she instead recommends an herbal tea specifically for children.
Where to begin…
I happen to know this boy and he is a very high-energy type and extremely competitive. Have you ever watched a pre-game locker room where the team captain gives a fiery speech and the team stampedes down the tunnel and on to the field? Those players are pretty revved up aren’t they? Follow that up with an intense game and a position that requires keen mental focus like a goalie, and is there any wonder why the boy has a hard time falling a sleep?
These are all rhetorical questions of course and here’s another one that establishes my point, where is the wind down time? Children that play night games with professional sport like schedules are extremely vulnerable for potential issues like not being able to fall asleep at night.
And the last thing we want to do is give them a supplement that covers up the real issue. I am nervous to think what happens when the tea loses its effectiveness, is the melatonin the next step for an 11-year-old? Let’s take a closer look at the real problem. Children are ill equipped to handle professional-style schedules and that is exactly what many are living with because of travel teams and year-round single sport participation. Mentally and physically they are not ready to meet these demands and it’s only a matter of time before the lack of sleep leads to fatigue, poor performance and likely injury.
As adolescent children experiencing rapid changes in height and weight, rest becomes essential to optimize growth and development. Without adequate rest children’s bodies are trying to play catch-up and it’s a race that is best avoided to prevent developmental delays that likely can’t be made up for.
Also worth mentioning is the message we send when we give them a supplement or even tea to fall asleep. That could be the start of a slippery slope where they may always look for “things” outside of food, training or rest to give them an edge. That may be taking a leap but it has to be considered because of the current competitive culture that permeates youth sport.
I want to make clear that I am not anti-sport. What I am not in favor of is sport specialization and kids playing pro style schedules. For the pros it’s their career and they have the benefit of charter flights, luxury hotels, trainers and nutritionists. Not to mention they are physically and mentally (at least most of them) mature adults. Children don’t enjoy these benefits so they shouldn’t be expected to meet the same demands. Most professional sports teams have at minimum a 4-month off-season. Most kids that play on travel teams are lucky to get one month off during the year. When’s the last time you cut a family vacation short just to get back in time for a practice or game? In ten years which opportunity would you have regretted missing out on?
Just a few more thoughts I had after hearing about Bobby:
Who makes these schedules?
Who is best served by the current culture of youth sport, adults or kids?
Why do kids play sports…fun, to get a scholarship, what’s the point?
Is it worth using a kid up or burning them out before they turn 16?
I apologize for all of the questions this week but I think it’s important that they are considered. Hopefully we all have the right answers for the sake of our children. Children can be very persuasive and they may sincerely love a sport so much they couldn’t stand to be without it for a few weeks but the best thing we can do is call a timeout and encourage them to try something else for a while. Not only will it be tremendous for overall athletic skill development it will also provide a de-loading phase for their developing young bodies. And when it comes time to pick their sport back up a few months later you won’t be able to contain their enthusiasm. What are the chances of emotional burn out from seasonal sport participation? Short-term pain for long-term gain!
Are we so emotionally invested in the “athletic careers” of our children that we are losing sight of the big picture? Of overall scholarship aid handed out to college students each year, sports awards are a sliver: 18 percent at public colleges and universities and just 7 percent at private ones, according to Sandy Baum of Skidmore College and Lucie Lapovsky of Mercy College, compiled for the College Board (Hyman, 2009) .
And even those that are awarded athletic scholarships should still expect to pay a tuition bill, likely a large one. Division 1 football and basketball (men and women) provide full scholarships but most other collegiate sports do not. From my own experience the baseball team at Eastern Michigan University (yes, believe it or not they have a division 1 program) has an allotment of 11.7 scholarships to dole out between 25-30 players. So obviously not everyone is getting a full ride scholarship, some do but most have only parts of their tuition covered. As an example an athlete may have his books paid for and that’s only if he makes the team. So are all of the travel leagues, year round commitments and sleepless nights worth what may only add up to a years worth of books? It’s better than nothing but something tells me our expectations were a tad loftier than that.
Sport should be fun and a physically creative outlet for kids to express their athleticism. But the benefit of sport goes beyond the field of play because of the contribution that participation can have on character and leadership development. If that were the goal instead of using sport as some sort of financial investment would our kids be better off in the game of life? I recall a great quote from famed sport psychologist Harvey Dorfman: “you better use the game or else it will use you.” He was talking about perspective. With the proper perspective you can use sports to contribute to your personal development, lose perspective though and it will likely lead to many sleepless nights.