With each new Olympiad I’m reminded of the opportunity I had, as an athletic trainer, to deliver healthcare to Olympic athletes through my work with the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). Obviously all of these athletes performed at a very high level, but there were some other characteristics that they each shared. All of them had a drive and determination that you don’t often see in other athletes, spending 6-8 hours training every day. They do it because THEY want to.
Another component that is often overlooked and hard to put a finger on is brought to mind from a line in the movie from 1981, Chariots of fire: “You can’t get out what God didn’t put in.” In other words, genetics is also an important component. So if you want to be an Olympic athlete, you need to pick your parents well. I think, in part, this genetic component is what drives us to the activities we choose to participate in. When you are good at an activity you tend to enjoy playing, participation leads to more success and continued participation. A simple theory of positive reinforcement!
For the children who have a propensity to kick that ball with vigor, for those would-be Beckham’s, it’s a win-win situation. The American Heart Association and the NFL have an initiative titled Play 60, encouraging kids to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. It doesn’t have to be a sport, just be active. In the long run isn’t that what becomes important, learning how to be active for the rest of your life? If we are realistic with our expectations of our children and set the goal of lifetime leisure activity, sports participation may be the end result.
Take a look at these figures for a bit of reality.
PERCENTAGE OF HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS RECEIVING SCHOLARSHIP MONEY IN SPORTS
- Football – <2% of seniors will get scholarship money
- Soccer – 1% of boys and 2% for girls
- Volleyball – 1%
- Basketball – 2.8%
- 98 out of 100 high school athletes never play collegiate sports of any kind at any level
- Only 1 in 16,000 high school athletes attains a professional career in sports
We know that physical activity produces overall physical, psychological and social benefits. Athletic participation can aid in fighting childhood obesity, encourages social interaction and promotes self-confidence and independence. The physical exertion involved in sports can strengthen muscles, increase flexibility, rev up metabolism, improve circulation and promote good mental health.
There is also an education component that can come from competing, including how to cope with both victory and failure. Athletic accomplishment yields confidence and assurance for growing children. Sports, in general and when handled well by parents giving proper support and encouragement, allow the child to use his or her interests and/or skills to choose the activity that suits them best. Whatever the sport might be, the parent should support and encourage the child to perform within the child’s abilities and to set realistic goals.
The darker side to this, however, is the ongoing feelings of anxiety, stress and inadequacy that can be felt by those children who may not have the desire or ability to become the next Olympic gold medal winner or even care to participate in organized sports. For these children, just the mere thought of competition within the athletic realm is enough to leave them quaking in their newly-purchased Nike running shoes. When the drive to participate comes from a desire to please parents, it can be at the detriment of the child. Parents, seeking to achieve dreams vicariously through a child, can diminish the child and the importance of his/her desires and dreams, prioritizing the parent’s goals over those of the child. A parent may push a child too much, with a focus only on their goals and not considering that the child may not have the same goals and desires that the parent has. This then can very easily lead to overuse injuries and/or “burn out”.
As I mentioned earlier, Olympic athletes are there because THEY want to be! Sports are about enhancing self-esteem, learning to work within a team structure, and exercise. So whether kids play varsity or are on traveling teams or just play in their back yard, at the end of the day isn’t the point to have fun?