Category Archives: health

New Report on the Dangers of Early Sport Specialization

Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes; ©2016 by American Academy of Pediatrics
Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes; ©2016 by American Academy of Pediatrics

I am a long time advocate of late specialization-early diversification in youth sport, and this research report by the American Academy of Pediatrics “Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes” in the September 2016 issue of Pediatrics hits the mark and provides concrete evidence that early specialization in NOT the optimal pathway to either elite performance or health and well being.

The AAP report along with the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, I “hope” will begin to shift the discussion and beliefs about youth sport participation and structure 180 degrees away from winning/performance to fun and enjoyment and development.  In January 2015, the Aspen Institute released “Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game,” a 48-page report that offers a new model for youth sports in America, with eight strategies for the eight sectors that touch the lives of children.

The cultural shift has to start with sport parent and coach education.

 

Reform Needed in Youth Sport

WCCO Nov 2015 Project Play

I comment this in this piece titled “As competition rises, team sports decline, but traveling teams soar WCCO-TV”.  

The The Aspen Institute’s Project Play is also mentioned.

Project Play focuses on access to quality sport opportunities for children ages 12 and under. “Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game (2015),” is a 48-page report that offers a new model for youth sports in America, with eight strategies for the eight sectors that touch the lives of children.

Great Resources for the Public about Title IX

Marking the 40 year anniversary of Title IX, a landmark piece of civil rights federal legislation, many organizations are holding conferences, raising awareness and educating the public on the importance, history and current issues pertaining to this important law. I’ve included some key Title IX resources below.

The espnW team, a site that connects female fans to the sports they love and follow, has created an entire microsite full a great content about Title IX that is well worth checking out, including a recent story by Peter Keating (@PKStatsBlog) titled “The silent enemy of men’s sports” which outlines Title IX is not responsible for the cutting men’s non-revenue sports–the real reason is men’s football. If you look at the statistics, the data is compelling and provides evidence which refutes the myth that Title IX “cuts men’s sports.” A  law doesn’t cut sports, people do, and most of the decisions to cut sports have been made by male athletic directors.

Colleague, lawyer, and Senior Director of Advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation Nancy Hogshead-Makar (@Hogshead3au)  suggests people look at the data provided by Knight Commision’s “College Sports 101.” For those still not convinced, and wanting to argue that “football pays for all other sports” I would click here for a telling graph on profits and revenues of big time athletics programs. In 2011 of the 120 Division I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision) schools only 22 were profitable and the other 98 had a median loss of $11.3 million. That is certainly enough money to fund a men’s “non-revenue” sport! In fact Nancy often educates others that “in FBS schools football and men’s basketball eat up 78% of the men’s athletics budget”–meaning all other men’s sports get to split the other 22%.

For those in the great state of MN, the June issue of the Minnesota Women’s Press is dedicated to Title IX including a short column I wrote about the status of women’s sports 40 years after Title IX, and an interview with colleague and Tucker Center Director Mary Jo Kane on pervasive “myths and stereotypes about Title IX.”. One of the myths she debunks that is mentioned above pertains to “Title IX is blamed for hurting men’s sports.” For those outside MN the entire issue is available online!

In November 2011, The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, the first center of its kind, held a one day conference with gender scholars from across the globe, on important issues facing females in sport contexts including lack of females in positions of power, disproportionate coverage of female athletes in the sport media, and issues of in/exclusion. You can watch videos of the keynotes, see pictures, download posters on the Tucker Center website. In April 2012 the Tucker Center held their spring Distinguished Lecture series featuring a trio of Title IX champions and pioneers Judy Sweet, Deborah Brake and native Minnesotan Peg Brenden (who is also featured in the June issue of MN Women’s Press!). You can watch video the lecture here.

In May 2012 the newly formed Sport Health Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) Center for Women and Girls at the University of Michigan held a 2-day  “Title IX at 40” conference to celebrate and discuss key issues facing females in health, sport and physical activity. You can see videos of keynotes and conference highlights here. (note: SHARP is a partnership between the Women’s Sports Foundation and U-M’s School of Kinesiology and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.)

We Wonder Why Youth are Obese?

This week I heard two stories about active transport for school children that made me shake my head, one in a good way and one bad.

Graph from Huffpost.com 9/30/09 "Cycling or Walking to School Will Not Be Tolerated!"

First, it is no secret that an alarming (and perhaps increasing, although some data indicate the trend is flattening) number of children and youth are overweight or obese. Based on 2008 CDC data, about 33% of youth and children obese. Obese youth are more likely to be inactive, and inactivity in childhood leads to about a 90% likelihood of inactivity throughout the lifespan. Inactivity leads to increased likelihood of chronic and acute health conditions. Therefore it is critical to quality of life, health and well-being that children be physically active, are encouraged to do so, and like it.

So when I was talking to a relative, and she said her children (now 13 & 15) are FORBIDDEN by the school administration to bike to school even if she biked to/from school with her kids, I could not believe it! As someone who biked to school as a kid and currently bikes to work when weather permits, I cannot imagine being actively discouraged from biking. Shouldn’t one be able to bike to school/work if he/she chooses!? Isn’t this the parents’ decision, not school administrators?

I began asking other parents if this were true in their school districts–the answer was yes! I found a May 2, 2012 story on NPR titled “What’s Lost When Kids Don’t Ride Bikes To School” in which it was reported the number of students who walk or ride their bikes to school has dropped from 48% in 1969 to just 13% in 2009. The main reason stated for the rule is safety, which is outlined in a great book titled Free Range Kids: How to Raise Self-Reliant, Safe Kids.

The second story is from a conversation I had with a friend who teaches physical education in elementary school. I asked her about the “no biking to school rule” (confirmed), but she also told me about another active transport initiative. At her school every Friday she picks up about 30 kids on the “Walking School Bus. Brilliant! She said it is growing in popularity and the kids love it. What a simple way to solve the physical activity and safety issue.

In an era where childhood and youth obesity is an public health issue, daily required Physical Education in our schools is a rarity, yet data indicates physical activity increases cognitive function and therefore academic achievement, making it possible for children to actively transport themselves to school seems like a great solution to many issues.

To learn more, read the brief by the Active Living Research arm of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation that summarizes the research and provides recommendations for policies that increase active transport–“A substantial body of research shows that certain aspects of the transportation infrastructure—public transit, greenways and trails, sidewalks and safe street crossings near schools, bicycle paths, traffic–calming devices, and sidewalks that connect schools and homes to destinations—are associated with more walking and bicycling, greater physical activity and lower obesity rates.”


CDC  Overweight is defined as having excess body weight for a particular height from fat, muscle, bone, water, or a combination of these factors.3 Obesity is defined as having excess body fat.

Broken Systems: Sport, Education & Health Care

The health care debate over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has got me thinking about systems. Like many Americans I didn’t know much about the ACA, only that it is hotly contested. Unlike many Americans I have recently taken some time to get educated about the complex facets of the new law so I can be informed. I encourage everyone to do the same as health care affects EVERYONE…including you.

Two other systems that affect a majority of Americans are education and sports.

What do all these important social institutions have in common? They are all broken and dysfunctional. At the heart of dysfunction is how those in positions of power are rewarded and how the “client”(i.e., student, athlete, patient) is treated.

Currently, in our health care system doctors are paid/rewarded by treating sick patients (i.e.,  visit clinic, have tests run, buy drugs), not for how healthy their patients are, preventative care or keeping patients well. The quality of patient care is not at the heart of our current health care system, money is. The ACA is trying to change that by rewarding doctors for keeping health care costs LOW and patients healthy.

In the American education system, teachers are paid/rewarded regardless if their students learn, earn degrees, or receive a quality education. In some states (like MN) middle and high school teachers receive tenure, so even if their teaching is of poor quality, firing them is difficult. The same is true of colleges and universities. If students fail to achieve the standardized testing metrics of No Child Left Behind, a school is punished but not the teachers directly (to my knowledge). I teach at a university, and I get paid regardless if my students learn or earn degrees. The quality of student education is not at the heart of our education system, because there isn’t enough money allocated to fund public education.

However I know one person who will get a very LARGE bonus (a bonus larger than most faculty members earn in three years!!) if the students in his care do perform well in the classroom, and he isn’t a professor. New Ohio State Head Football Coach Urban Meyer will get “Bonuses of up to $300,000 a year if players meet certain academic progress and graduation standards.” The subtext reads: You should care about and keep your players academically eligible to play, so you are more likely to win, which brings in money to the university (i.e. TV revenue, conference revenue sharing, bowl appearances). I’m not saying Meyer shouldn’t care about his athlete’s academic performance, he should, but that is not his job. His job is to win football games. The quality of athlete experience and education is not the focus of the current “big time” (what Murray Sperber calls ‘Beer & Circus’) college sport system, money is.

If the primary structure and goal of college sports is to win, and coaches are rewarded for winning (i.e., bonuses, bigger salaries, better jobs, job security) the system is ultimately broken and in need of reform.

Winning is important and I’m not saying it isn’t or that teams/athletes/coaches shouldn’t strive to win. The point I’m making is when the primary structure of sport is set up around winning (and winning = money), exploitation of athletes, corruption, cheating the system, and scandal becomes more likely.

The problem in all three systems? The WRONG people are being rewarded with money in the wrong ways and the quality of athletic/education/medical experiences of the “client” is often secondary.

The proof? You don’t have to search very hard for recent headlines involving scandals in sports, education or medicine.

Physical Activity in China

I was recently given the opportunity to travel to China for the inauguration of the American Cultural Center for Sport at Tianjin Sport University in Tianjin China. Having never been to China, I tried to learn about and make as many observations pertaining to physical activity, sport, health and well being as I could.

East Meets West, and not in a good way.
I asked if obesity is a public health issue in China, and the answer was “yes it is a growing problem.” This response surprised me. I have observed but one overweight/obese Chinese person in 8 days in three of the biggest cities in China (Shanghai, Tianjin & Beijing).

The reason why obesity is on the rise in China I was told is due to lifestyle changes associated with economic development (i.e. more people can afford cars & scooters, and therefore engage in less active transport like walking or biking) and the introduction of Western fast food, which I captured in an “East meets West” photo. The current US population is 312 million, and according the CDC more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese. The current Chinese population is 1.35 billion, and I found an article that stated obesity rates in China are soaring and more than 25% of Chinese adults are overweight or obese. This data and my observations while here in China are not congruent, so I’ll have to do some investigating and learning on the nature of this discrepancy.

What I did observe is active Chinese across the lifespan.

Tai Chi in the Temple of Heaven park at 7am
Public parks are used by older Chinese for many forms of physical activity, including walking, ballroom dance, tai chi, and many others.  The outdoor circuit training stations equipment is really interesting and I haven’t seen anything like it in the US. The machines don’t provide any resistance, but are great for range of motion and keeping

An outdoor elliptical in a Chinese park.
all body parts loose and working.  To that end, I saw many older Chinese using various park fixtures to stretch, massage or promote circulation, like the two women pictured here.

Physical activity seems more playful, joyful and integrated into daily life for older Chinese. The park is a public place they go for spiritual, social and physical health. I saw nearly all the groups I watched, laugh and smile and genuinely interact with one another. I did not see ONE cell phone.

2 Chinese women stretching and massaging their legs
One game that I tried with some women, is Chinese Hacky Sack. I didn’t know what is was called, but with a quick use of The Google

Jianzi in the park
I discovered The Chinese Hacky Sack is called Jianzi. It is a special shuttlecock sport played with a colorful feathered article with a spring-loaded base that is kicked by feet with the goal of keeping it in the air for as long as possible. It was really fun, easier than hacky sack, and I worked up a sweat in 2-3 minutes.

The physical activities I saw appeared to be free and most had a peer leader/coach. Below right you can see a woman instructing another woman on how to do Taiji Rouliqiu move. This physical activity is a modern kind of internal martial art originating from China which follows the principles of Taijiquan in its philosophy and in the motion. The students I saw ranged in age, but most appeared to be middle age or older. Lesson: it is never too old to be physically active or learn a new physical skill. It left me wondering what children and adolescents do for physical activity and if they engage in the same forms.

Peer Taiji Rouliqiu Coaching in the Park
If you know the name of the physical activity this man is doing, please let me know. It looked very challenging but meditative, as the object he is spinning around on the rope makes a pleasant humming type noise. Thanks in advance!

I don't know what this is called but it looks fun!

In the US when I drive past parks, I rarely see ANYONE using them, let alone groups of older adults!  With an aging US population, growing obesity rates, and unused green space, it seems to me market and opportunity exist for someone to seize.

Ban Checking in Male Hockey

It is time to ban checking in boy’s and men’s hockey, not just raise the checking age, but get rid of it altogether.

I know this won’t be a popular idea. Raising the checking age in boys’ hockey hasn’t been popular either, but it is the right thing to do. Adversaries argue checking is fundamental to the game (read: the game, meaning men’s hockey which is the real hockey anyway). Big hits are exciting. Hockey isn’t hockey without checking. Taking checking out of hockey or raising the checking age makes it”wimpy”–code for: it will resemble women’s hockey, and feminizes males. (Read the USA Hockey column titled “Changing The Checking Age Does Not Soften Our Sport.” ). Males won’t want to play. It will put the USA at a competitive disadvantage. Nobody will pay for or watch hockey without checking… the counterarguments are many.

I play hockey. I am a hockey player in the largest women’s hockey league in the world (WHAM). I live in the State of Hockey (that is Minnesota for those who don’t know what I’m talking about). I am a hockey fan. I give hockey coach and sport parent workshops. I have researched psychosocial variables in hockey. I spent a good part of 2011 being part of discussions about concussions, and making a documentary on sport-related concussions. I get and understand the game of hockey.

If you know hockey, you know that checking is not allowed in women’s hockey. I favor that rule, even though I know many women want to have the opportunity to check, and at elite levels checking, er…I mean heavy body contact, does occur so why not make it legal. I have long thought checking should not be a part of any level or hockey, regardless of gender. If you make the argument that females shouldn’t check because it is dangerous, then why do we allow it in male hockey? Rather than argue that not letting females check is an outdated paternalistic rule, I’d rather argue another point. ( I will add however, that getting rid of checking for males, eliminates the idea that women’s hockey is “less than” or “not real hockey” because there is no checking, which could be a different blog).

KEY POINT: Are we less concerned with the health and well being of males? Do we feel it is OK to have males increase the likelihood of injury for our entertainment? Is putting males at increased risk for injury part of what it means to “be a man”?

I decided to write this blog because within a one week span here in Minnesota, two high school athletes have been severely injured as a result of checking. St. Croix Lutheran senior Jenna Privette suffered a serious spinal cord injury when she was checked from behind after taking shot and crashed into the boards. Jack Jablonski of Benilde-St. Margaret’s was paralyzed after he was legally checked into the boards. Would either of these injuries be prevented with a no checking rule or a much stronger stance on illegal checking from behind? I don’t know. What I do know is that FAR FEWER injuries would occur if checking were eliminated from male hockey, and through widespread educational efforts checking would be strongly discouraged and penalized in female hockey, and hockey in general.

Having the discussion is a worthy endeavor, regardless of if you agree with my premise or not.

How to Change to Culture of Youth Sport?

This week I talked with a local writer, Meagan Frank, who is writing a book about youth sport. She asked some great questions and as a sport parent she sees the toxic climate that permeates some youth sport contexts, and wants to do something about it. She read my blog about my thoughts on how the professionalized model of youth sport won’t change unless college sport is reformed. I think that until athletic scholarships aren’t the means to an end for sport participation for some (most?) kids and their parents, that the professionalization of youth sport will continue (i.e., year round training, early sport specialization, travel teams that cut kids at younger and younger ages).

What would youth sport look like if millions of families weren’t pursuing a college athletic scholarship? Would more athletes play only for the love of the game? Would they have more fun? Would they enjoy their experience more? Would they worry less about what team and at what level they play? Would the parents yell and scream less on the sidelines? Would fewer kids get burned out or chronically injured? Would fewer kids drop out of sport?

Meagan asked me one question that has stuck in my mind: If you could pick one thing to change about youth sports that would make a difference, what would it be? I had to pause a moment because there are so MANY things to change. I wanted to pick the the least common denominator, the one policy that I think would effect the greatest change.

My answer: Mandate equal playing time for all kids up until the age of 14.

In a previous blog post on playing time in youth sport I specified a model of “Playing Time Considerations” which included the many factors that go into making decisions about playing time. In that blog I included a quote by a colleague, “playing time is not a reward for displaying virtue, it is a means for developing virtue.”   Playing time is also a means for developing skill and mental toughness. You cannot improve if you sit on the bench. You also don’t develop if you quit because you never play, or you are cut because the coach doesn’t think you are good enough to play…and you haven’t hit puberty yet. Equal playing time is crucial up until puberty so that early and late developers get an equal chance to DEVELOP, play and have fun.

By creating an equal playing time policy in all sports, at all levels of play (i.e., developmental leagues, rec, in house, elite travel teams), it would change the culture of youth sport. The culture would be more about developing skill for ALL kids. Even on elite travel teams where all the kids are highly skilled and talented, some kids still play more than others (although they pay the same very high fees to play on the team). This does not seem right or fair or good for psychological, social, physical or moral development. All teams would strive to win, but at least all the kids would have an equal role in the outcome.

What do you think?

Sport Scandals, Sexy Babes & Social Responsibility

As I posted previously, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a host of stimulating conferences and conversations in the past eight weeks related to girls and women in sport. I’m still musing about many things, but here are three I’m ready to share.

1. As a wrote about in my last blog post, the current model of “sport” (i.e., meaning the male model of win at all costs, big business, professionalization) is broken. If you believe this statement to be true and you also believe in a “growing sense of crisis in college sports“, then who is responsible for changing the current model or changing the course of big time, revenue pursuant, entertainment style college sport? Why hasn’t the The Knight Commission, whose mission is to advocate for a “reform agenda that emphasizes academic values in an arena where commercialization of college sports often overshadowed the underlying goals of higher education” and The Drake Group whose mission is to “is to help faculty and staff defend academic integrity in the face of the burgeoning college sport industry” been more vocal or got more traction lately in the wake of some major scandals?

Relatedly, given the historically abysmal patterns of media coverage for female athletes, who is responsible for creating socially responsible images of college female athletes? (Colleagues Sally Ross at Memphis and Vikki Krane at Bowling Green are thinking & writing about this concept). Shouldn’t athletic departments be held to a higher standard of marketing female athletes? Why does a “sex sells” narrative and images still persist (see image) in college athletics where the purpose is about education, not highlighting the physical appearance or making female athletic bodies into “sexy babe” objects? Doesn’t a university have an obligation and responsibility to ensure the health, well-being, integrity and respect of female athletes, just as it also has an obligation and responsibility to put the well-being of children ahead of potential scandal and shaming high profile men’s programs and their coaches?

2. Head Coach for the WNBA Championship Minnesota Lynx, Cheryl Reeve, stated in her keynote at the Alliance of Women’s Coaches workshop held at Macalester College, that sometimes a team gains, by subtracting players in what she calls “addition by subtraction”. I think this is what college athletics needs…take football and men’s basketball out of D-I and II college athletics altogether and a great deal can be gained. However, despite recent dialogue by NCAA President Mark Emmert that radical reform is needed, yet some argue real reform for  football and men’s basketball is not possible. Think of many of the issues currently facing college athletics administrators and university presidents would go away, be diminished, or never occur if football and men’s basketball were removed from institutions of higher education. The Arms Race, rule violations, academic fraud, eligibility problems, booster and recruitment violations, pay for play, the $2K stipend, discussions of athlete unions and revenue sharing with athletes, athlete exploitation, and cover-ups of egregious coach and player behavior might be reduced. Those sports could be affiliated with a school, but athletes would not be required to attend class, but given the opportunity to earn their degree for free once the player retired from sports or desired to focus on academics. To hear colleague and Professor Allen Sack discuss these issues in depth, click here. I’m not sure college sport can or ever will be truly reformed…

Given that much of my work focuses on the youth level, where I feel I might be able to make a real difference somehow, I have come to believe the problems in college sport are related to problems at the youth sport level.

3. The current youth sport model emulates Big Time College Sport and Pro Sport…specialization, year round training, pay to play, transferring based on playing time and winning, athletes as commodities to help a franchise win, children training away from their families at elite sport academies, kids viewed as “return on investments”, development and experience are downplayed as winning and performance are center stage, team loyalty and playing with friends are sacrificed to play on elite travel teams focused on securing college scholarships, a great deal of money is spent on ensuring the right equipment and experiences, highly specialized training (e.g., strength and conditioning, agility, sport psychology) to increase the likelihood of optimal performance, and the growing number of chronic and acute injuries due to overuse and over training. The youth sport model is never going to change unless college sport is reformed. If athletics were taken out of institutions of higher education and full ride scholarships were not the “end all, be all” goal of athletes and their parents, youth sport would look a LOT different. Youth sport might just start to resemble something better…where athlete development, fun, enjoyment, positive relationships, learning, skill development, and being active and competing are fun in and of itself, rather than being a means to an end. Imagine it.

While reform in college sports may be unlikely, don’t we have a social responsibility to help ensure youth sport retains some semblance of being athlete-centered?

Concussions and Female Athletes Documentary Available Online

Concussions and their devastating consequences affect athletes in all sports and at all levels. However, while sport-related concussions have ignited a national conversation and public debate about this serious brain injury, the majority of attention has focused on male athletes. Critical issues surrounding the impact of concussion on female athletes have been largely ignored. Through the personal stories and experiences of coaches, athletes and their families, as well as in-depth interviews with nationally recognized scholars and medical experts, this documentary examines the causes underlying concussion and offers practical solutions to help prevent and treat sports-related concussion injuries in female athletes.

In collaboration with the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) has produced a ground-breaking, one-hour documentary on the untold story of female athletes and concussion.

You can watch the full length documentary for free by clicking this web link.