Youth Fitness Should Trump Athletic Competition

“Combined participation in the four most-popular U.S. team sports—basketball, soccer, baseball and football—fell among boys and girls aged 6 through 17 by roughly 4% from 2008 to 2012.” [Wall Street Journal]

Docs and others are worried because “It is much more likely that someone who is active in their childhood is going to remain active into their adulthood.”

Forgotten in this discussion is the fact that there are lots of ways to be active. When it comes to youth, we focus far too narrowly on athletic competition at the expense of fitness.

One common theory for the decline is that social networking, videogames and other technology are drawing children away from sports. And of course football faces a more specific challenge, “growing concern that concussions and other contact injuries can cause lasting physical damage.” The Journal speculates on other causes including increasing costs of participation to excessive pressure on kids in youth sports to cuts in school physical-education programs.

I was intrigued by one student’s story in the article:

Fifteen-year-old Jessica Cronin is the daughter of a former three-sport high-school athlete. But Jessica doesn’t participate in high-school sports, choosing to spend her time outside of class volunteering in her community and going to her temple youth group each Wednesday. “I considered doing track, but it takes up so much time,” said Ms. Cronin, a sophomore at Bethlehem Central High School in Delmar, N.Y.

Since most fifteen year-olds can run 6-7 miles in an hour, I suspect Jessica prefers her community service and youth group activities because they’re based on cooperation more than competition. Most young athletes don’t care about winning as much as their coaches. They’re not anti-competition per se, they just can’t relate to, and therefore resent, many of their coaches “win at all costs” approach.

That’s why a lot of young people gravitate to alternative sports like ultimate frisbee and alternative activities like skateboarding.

Survey youth basketball, soccer, baseball and football coaches about what’s most important to them and their athletes long-term health probably won’t make the list. Too many youth coaches are fixated on scoreboards and win-loss records. School principals, athletic directors, and parents aren’t doing enough to train, hire, and reward coaches who think about team sports as a context for healthier living.

Switching from a competitive team sport orientation to a fitness one should start with wider, better lit roads with generous sidewalks so that most young people can walk, bike, blade, skateboard, or run to and from school. Next physical education classes should emphasize life long activities including walking, running, yoga, swimming, and related activities. Students should be encouraged to compete against their younger selves to walk, run, cycle, and swim farther faster.

When fitness trumps athletic competition physical education classes and team sport practices will be more fun than video games. There should be little to no standing around. I have fond memories of some high school water polo practices where our conditioning consisted of a crazy obstacle course that culminated with a celebratory jump off the three meter board. We improved on the coach’s design by firing balls at one another mid-air. Granted a nose was broken and that was in the Pleistocene Era before the first lawyer emerged from the primordial ooze. Practices would be shorter because the emphasis would be on quality of activity more than quantity.

Who is with me?


Make Parents Accountable for Children’s Fitness

More positive impacts of aerobic activity. Wish I had a dollar for everyone of these types of articles I’ve read recently. Key paragraph from a NYT blog titled “Can Exercise Makes Kids Smarter?” “. . . the researchers, in their separate reports, noted that the hippocampus and basal ganglia regions interact in the human brain, structurally and functionally. Together they allow some of the most intricate thinking. If exercise is responsible for increasing the size of these regions and strengthening the connection between them, being fit may ‘enhance neurocognition’ in young people.”

Later in the post the blogger references research that claims 25% of school-aged children are sedentary. The conventional conclusion, recommit to physical education in schools. Before doing that, it’s important to ask who should be accountable for K-12 students’ relative fitness, their teachers or their parents and guardians? Recommitting to physical education in schools assumes it’s their teachers, but I assume two things: 1) public school teachers are being held accountable for far too many non-acacademic social/economic/health-related problems and 2) parents or guardians should be held most accountable for their children’s relative fitness.

Consequently, I propose doing away with traditional team-sport based physical education in elementary, middle, and high schools and in its place breaking up the school day with two or three ten minute-long calisthenic/walking/yoga breaks. In addition, I propose mothballing every school bus in urban and suburban districts and banning parents and guardians from driving their able-bodied students to school. Similarly, I propose banning urban and suburban high school students from driving to school. Under my proposal, every able-bodied urban/suburban K-12 student will have to walk or ride bicycles to school every day.

The protests will take the following forms: 1) it’s too far and will take too long; 2) at times throughout the year it’s far too cold, dark, and wet; 3) the neighborhoods we’d have to walk/bike through aren’t safe enough; 4) it violates freedom of choice.

In order. 1) Move closer or enroll your child in your neighborhood school. My tenth grade daughter lives 1.75 miles from her locker. Most people can walk 16 minutes/mile, so in her case it would take approximately 28 minutes to walk to school or about 15 more than in a car given the before school traffic jam on the streets and in the school lot. She’d have to go to bed 15-20 minutes early which is tragic because she’d probably miss “SuperNanny.” So it’s an extra 30 minutes a day, but not really since I’ve eliminated physical education. In actuality, she saves 25 minutes a day. If she rides her bike at a comfortable 12mph, she’d reduce her commute to about the same time as a car. I can hear her, “What about my gargantuan textbooks and violin?” “Get an iPad and I didn’t hear you practice last night.”

2) Inevitably, parents/guardians would have to walk with young children which would create community and also contribute to their fitness. And a little physical toughness would be a very good thing.

3) This might be just the impetus to make them safer. It’s illogical for some to claim we’re the “greatest country in the world” if some of our neighborhoods aren’t safe enough to walk through. Again, groups of parents taking turns escorting children in the mornings and afternoons would most likely have a very positive ripple effect on the safety of dicey neighborhoods.

4) True, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Consider not just the health benefits, but the economic ones. Imagine what school districts could do with their transportation savings. Reduce property taxes, offer more extracurriculars, reduce class size, update their technology tools.

To make my proposal more pragmatic I propose letting any student (and all bass players) that can verify that they’re getting at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity a day (through after school sports or independent play that a coach or non-parent/guardian adult can vouch for) opt out. Ideally, this will lead to swimming, cross country, and other teams being overwhelmed by new students turning out, which in turn will require districts to devote some of their transportation savings to these activities. It may also provide coaching opportunities for the displaced physical education teachers, the only real losers in my proposal.

Or parents and other citizens can keep blaming teachers for problems mostly outside of their control.