Monday, November 10, 2014

The Sports Our Kids Will Play

A guest post by my husband.

I was not very active as a child. I started reading at a very young age, and my parents say that they often had to tell me to put down the book and go play outside (things you never think you'll have to say...). As such, I think they would've taken just about any sport that I developed an interest in; the only rule was that I wasn't allowed to play football, which also never interested me.

My children do not share my desire to be sedentary all the time.

We do, however, now know more about sports medicine than we did 20 years ago. Our international student played tennis at school this fall, and they had a very interesting guest speaker to discuss injuries in youth sports. Much of it was focused around concussions, but he also spent quite a bit of time talking about the harm of playing one sport year round. It increases the risk of overuse injuries significantly (which makes sense, but I'd never really thought about it), and anecdotal evidence suggests it might even be counterproductive toward excellence in that sport; I don't remember the exact number, but it was something like 98% of Olympic athletes at the 2012 games played two or more sports growing up.

Peter has thus far only done gymnastics, in part because you can start that at a much younger age than other sports, but now he's just about old enough to participate in others, and also developing more of an interest (thanks in part to going to the tennis matches this fall). In the spring, we're going to open up the choices for him a bit.

But which sports? I decided not to give him complete freedom in choosing, because there are certain things I just don't want to have to deal with as a parent. Please note that I'm not saying that the sports we've excluded are bad and I'm certainly not trying to cast judgment on anyone; they're just not a good fit for our family. We do also want him to play a sport; I used to be fairly anti-sports, and still have some misgivings, but I'm convinced at this point that they do more good than harm for kids, at least when set up properly.

These were our primary elimination criteria:

-High concussion rate. One of the things I learned in that presentation is that even getting a single concussion has the potential to cause lifelong migraine or mood issues. No sport is completely immune from the possibility; according to NCAA Division I athletes, golf has the lowest rate, but 5% of golfers still reported getting a concussion while playing! However, I don't want to assume that extra risk for my kids, if there are other sports where it happens less often. This information was surprisingly elusive, as many places just report raw emergency room data, which is not helpful. (For example, bicycling causes more emergency room concussion visits than football - but way more kids own bikes than play football, so that doesn't really tell us much.)

-High expense. I'm going to pick on hockey here because of personal familiarity. We have some friends and relatives whose kids play hockey, and the expenses are very, very high. We have been blessed with more than enough money to survive, but I'm frankly not sure we could fit travel hockey into our budget, so I don't see the benefit in introducing it if we wouldn't be able to support carrying it to a higher level if the interest stays.

-High environmental impact. This didn't eliminate much, but I wanted to get rid of anything that is demonstrably hurting the planet. That's not a worthwhile trade-off to me.

-Anything that's based on weight classes. I've heard too many body issue horror stories about this to want to risk it. I know there are plenty of kids who do these sports and have no problems, but there are also those who do, and as with the other things, I personally don't think the risk is worth it.

If I were going to pick a sport for our kids, it would be volleyball. It has just about the lowest concussion rate of any team sport, provides one of the best aerobic workouts of any lifetime sport (FIVA has a 75+ age bracket), is something that is relatively easy to access and can be played in a backyard, and doesn't have any high-profile professional leagues filled with bad role models (it's a sport you play much more so than a sport you watch). The only major downside is that youth volleyball doesn't really start until age 8.

However, just as I don't want to give them complete freedom of choice in this matter, neither do I want to dictate to them what they are going to do. I don't want them to end up resenting the sport, or worse, sports in general. We developed a list of choices, which I've broken into two tiers: sports I'll actively encourage, and sports that are acceptable and will be presented as options, but I'm not going to actively encourage. As with anything, it's subject to change, though I think it's probably pretty final.

Tier 1:
-Basketball. This was the sport I ultimately ended up playing growing up, and it still fits within all of our criteria.
-Martial arts. I know it's not exactly a sport, but it's still in the same category of highly active activities, and teaches many great life skills you don't necessarily get in sports.
-Baseball/Softball. We don't enjoy watching or playing baseball as much as the others, but it does have the lowest concussion rate, and would put our very-small-for-their-ages children at less of a disadvantage than the other sports in the top tier.

Tier 2:
-Gymnastics. I'm definitely supportive of him continuing, though it is more expensive than the tier 1 sports, especially if he decides to get competitive.
-Swimming. This is even more expensive, and really only makes the cut because we think swimming in general is a very important life skill, and if competitive swimming gets them to learn the skills, it's worth it.
-Tennis. I don't really have any objections to tennis other than that it's not something you can just play anywhere. We live within walking distance of a few public courts, but it's still not something you'll just be hanging out with your friends and be able to play spontaneously.
-Fencing. Our town has a fencing program, and I think it's pretty cool. Only misses tier 1 because it's not quite as physically rigorous as most of the rest of the list; you have to be in good shape to excel, but the actual sport itself isn't inherently as intense of a workout.
-Jump rope. I guess this is a thing now; from what I've read, it sounds like it's sort of like a gymnastics floor/synchronized swimming/dance routine. I couldn't find any programs near us with a cursory search, but if it keeps growing the way supporters claim it is, I'll be keeping my eye on it.
-Soccer. Truthfully, if it were entirely up to me, soccer would not be on the list. The third most interesting thing I found during my concussion rate research (#1 being 1 in 20 D1 golfers getting their bell rung, somehow) was how incredibly high the concussion rate is in soccer. It's nearly double basketball's, the next highest sport on this list. This is especially true in girls' soccer, which brings me to the second most interesting thing: for the same sport, girls tend to have about double the concussion rate as boys. Girls' soccer has by some accounts a higher concussion rate than field hockey, and by most accounts a similar rate to boys' lacrosse. My wife, however, was a soccer player and coach, and is very adamant that soccer remain on the list. I don't want to undermine her, but I'm not going to push it myself.

When we've shared this list with some of our friends, we usually get questions about things like track and bowling. Those cover the two main categories of things to which we don't object, but I'm not counting as their "sport". Running and cycling are things which they can do on their own or in one-off races without being part of a team or sacrificing another sport that they're doing, and since we're homeschooling, I'm not really sure if they'd be able to do them at an organized level anyway. Bowling, archery, ping pong and other things like that we're going to count as activities because they don't provide the full-body workouts of the other sports. (This is actually a slight concern about baseball as well, but if they stick with it until they're older it requires quite a bit of exertion, so we're willing to invest those stand-around-and-wait years.)

Like many of these kinds of parenting decisions, this one has caused me to alter my own lifestyle as well. I suspect part of the reason I was never interested in sports growing up was that my parents weren't either - I'm quite certain that was the case with football, as I never even really saw the game other than on Thanksgiving. What ultimately got me interested in basketball was NBA Jam. (Growing up in the '90s, far and away the most interesting period of professional basketball ever, helped, but my kids don't have that option.) This doesn't match my wife's experience, but I know that's reasonably common; I had a number of friends who got interested in skateboarding because of Tony Hawk Pro Skater, for example, or baseball because their parents were die-hard Yankees fans. I don't really watch sports; even basketball, which is the closest thing I have to following something, I haven't really cared about since the NBA outlawed defense in 2004.

The last great team before the dark age. But I digress.

I have, however, given up Tony Hawk, and the other video games I enjoy which depict sports I don't really want my kids to play. This has been a bigger sacrifice than it may sound; I've got extremely fond memories of playing through the entirety of Pro Skater 2 with a friend one summer in college while we talked through our future plans, and that game was on a very short list of games I was hoping to play through again with my kids someday. Ultimately, though, I'm sure we could have the same experience dusting off NBA Street Vol. 2; it's not the game that matters so much as the people and the experience of playing it.

Come to think of it, that last part really sums up the reason I went through this exercise to begin with. The sport I played most after basketball in middle and high school was baseball; I quit organized play shortly after T-ball, but my neighbor was really into it, so we used to play 1 on 1 often, and it was a lot of fun. I'm sure our kids will be able to find a couple of things from that list that they really enjoy.

How about the rest of you - how did your kids end up playing the sports they play?

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