Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Why sports for kids are good for our social lives

As part of my research for Until It Hurts, I spent a blustery December morning in Boston locating the office of Lyle Micheli. My hands were numb and my ears about frozen when I arrived but it was worth it to see Micheli, one of the nation's top docs for injured youth athletes.

Micheli has been treating such patients for decades. In 1974, he and several associates started the first sports injury clinic for kids in the U.S. at Children's Hospital. He's still there. And on a hectic day, he might see dozens of patients.

Micheli also has a reputation for straight talk, especially about the problems percolating in youth sports. That was true the day I visited.

I asked Micheli why parents are emotionally invested in the sports lives of children. He explained that there is a lot at stake for the adults, more than many admit or appreciate themselves.

And it's not all about winning and losing, he said.

"In a mobile society, if your child is on a travel team, you suddenly have 30 new people who are your best friends," Micheli told me. "You’re going to barbecues with the soccer team and so on. Participation on the team gives the family social entrees, social prerogatives, it would not have."

Micheli spoke of parents so emotionally involved in their kids' sports lives that they'd seemingly forgotten why they signed up their sons and daughters in the first place.

"I had a physician's family come in," Micheli said. "The mother was an emergency-room doctor. Her son had Little League elbow, which I operated on. The first question out of her mouth in the recovery room was, 'When do you think he can play again?' Not, 'How did the surgery go?' Or, 'How's the elbow going to be?' The loss of perspective was amazing."

I was intrigued with the idea that kids' sports can hold such power over adults and made it a major part of my book.

Then this month, sport researchers at Purdue University published a study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology that examines how youth sports changes the lives of adults. It was exploring the same issue, yet from a side that seemed kinder, gentler.

Here's some of what the Purdue researchers reported:

-Spouses with kids in youth sports became better communicators (with one another) and better organized. This was attributed to the coordination needed to make it on time to practices, games, private lessons and the rest.

-Some parents explained that watching their children excel in sports motivated them to pick up a sport themselves. One said that when her child took up tennis, she followed.

-Friendships among parents often outlasted the careers of their kid players. Even so, moms and dads said that they went through an emotional letdown when their kids' playing days ended and the adults lost their "play dates."

In a Purdue press release, one of the researchers, Alan Smith explained: "I don't think it's terribly surprising that parents connect with one another, but what was surprising is the intensity of that connection. Many view themselves differently, as well as their children differently, after exposure to youth sports."

That intensity can be channeled in constructive ways. (See Purdue study).

Or not. (Consult Dr. Micheli).

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