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Pressure to Win This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

They train four hours a day, often waking up at 4:30 or 5 for before-school practices. Their evenings and weekends are eaten up by twice-weekly travel games. Every day is the same; there's no break – not even on the Fourth of July. No, these aren't Olympic-caliber athletes; they're kids.

The benefits of sports are undeniable. They create camaraderie among teammates, teach valuable life lessons, and promote healthy, active living. So, it's not surprising that, according to CNN, 41 million American children play competitive sports. But when does this become too much of a good thing? With crazed parents who believe they're the referees, and coaches who push their athletes to the point of injury, the stress of sports is more apparent than ever. This pressure can harm the development of social skills, create a stressful environment that counteracts the positive effects of sports, and result in warped life priorities. Youth sports are designed to be fun, not a job. Treating them like one can lead to harmful consequences.

Seven years ago, a poll in SportingKid magazine found that 84 percent of athletes' parents had observed belligerent behavior in other parents at games. Eighty percent had been targets of this behavior. What does this say about sports culture, and our culture as a whole? Some parents have become so obsessed with their child winning that they don't stop to think about what example they are setting.

If athletes are constantly surrounded by adults who scream at coaches and assault sports officials, they may think that this is acceptable behavior. They'll try to win at all costs – even if it means cheating or attacking opponents. In other words, they won't know how to accept defeat, and learn from it. Instead, they'll probably throw a tantrum when they lose. This activity may be acceptable in 2-year-olds, but not for 10-year-olds. With bad habits like this cemented in childhood, young athletes won't be able to function in disappointing situations as adults.

The influence of adults' lack of sportsmanship can be dangerous too. According to a LA Times article, a 13-year-old Pony League baseball player struck and killed a 15-year-old with an aluminum baseball bat after the two argued. When teens begin to hurt each other in the name of the game, it's obvious that change is needed.

Physical activity is important to stay healthy, but the amount of time some athletes spend practicing can be dangerous. According to Sports Illustrated, over 3.5 million athletes younger than 15 suffered from a sports-related injury that required medical attention – that's nearly one in 10! Many injuries require surgery and cause permanent damage if not treated. Ignoring these facts, coaches and parents continue to push children to the limit. A Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission survey showed that 45 percent of players have been put down or yelled at during games. Twenty-two percent have also been encouraged to play despite injuries. US News and World Report states that over 70 percent of children eventually drop out of organized sports, and it isn't hard to see why.

The time commitment that competitive youth sport teams require is enormous. They often have over 100 travel games a year – many clubs and squads have two games a week – eating up time for homework and school. It can be very difficult to maintain a healthy balance.

Emily, a former competitive gymnast, practiced 24 hours a week by the age of nine. She eventually had to quit because, as she says, “I was too overworked. I didn't have time to focus on schoolwork, and sometimes I'd even have to skip homework.” This is the plight of many young athletes, who believe that diligent practice will pave the way to professional sports.

So what can we do about this situation? Some argue that there is no problem, sports has always been and will always be competitive. But did your grandparents spend hours each day practicing tennis or volleyball? No, they probably played with the neighborhood kids after school, not worrying about winning or improving their technique. All they wanted was to have fun. And that's what we need to change in youth sports – focus on enjoyment. Kids under the age of 10 are too young to risk the physical and psychological damages from excessive sports pressure. It's time to start recognizing that.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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