Leading off today:
"Tee Ball has ruined the way children are brought up in America."
That was the opening salvo in a column late last month by Mitch Pritchard, an editor at the Democrat and Chronicle.
Pritchard's line of thinking is that the rules of the sport -- everyone bats every inning, trophies for everyone at the end of the season, etc. -- do not prepare children for what's ahead in life.
"In principle," he writes, "this is a good idea. Ease kids into a pretty difficult sport. The idea, however, has been abused and carries over not only to other youth sports, but to classrooms and every other aspect of kids' lives."
Pritchard goes on to say kids "are coddled and protected so much that they are not allowed to learn from failing."
He draws upon experiences from his own youth to explain his viewpoint, admitting however that the school of hard knocks can't be the only classroom to prepare kids for life. "My high school football coach relished in 'abusing' us, but it was all to teach us to be tough and earn what we get," he wrote. "He would have been arrested for some of the things he said or did to us in those days, but I learned more from that man than anyone else in my life.
"You have to learn how to fail before you can truly succeed."
For another perspective on youth sports, read the op-ed written by ProPublica's David Epstein and published recently in The New York Times.
Epstein, formerly a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, says we're raising waves of young athletes bent on "hyperspecialization that is both dangerous and counterproductive." He advocates for making sure that children sample a variety of sports through at least age 12.
"We may prize the story of Tiger Woods, who demonstrated his swing at age 2 for Bob Hope," Epstein writes. "But the path of the two-time N.B.A. M.V.P. Steve Nash (who grew up playing soccer and didn't own a basketball until age 13) or the tennis star Roger Federer (whose parents encouraged him to play badminton, basketball and soccer) is actually the norm."
Neeru Jayanthi, director of primary care sports medicine at Loyola University in Chicago, conducted a study that concluded diverse sports backgrounds protect athletes from over-use injuries and help develop skills that can benefit them in their eventual game of choice.
"Kids who play multiple 'attacking' sports, like basketball or field hockey, transfer learned motor and anticipatory skills -- the unconscious ability to read bodies and game situations -- to other sports," Epstein summarized. "They take less time to master the sport they ultimately choose."
Information presented recently at the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine showed that varsity athletes at UCLA began to specialize on average at age 15.4, whereas undergrads who played sports in high school but did not make the intercollegiate level specialized at 14.2.
Connecting Epstein's column back to what Pritchard wrote, Epstein is a proponent of focusing on skills rather than wins and losses at the youth level. He notes that many Brazilian children get their first exposure to soccer by playing "futsal," a lightly structured game played on tiny fields or indoor courts with just five players per side.
"Players touch the ball up to five times as frequently as they do in traditional soccer, and the tighter playing area forces children to develop foot and decision-making skills under pressure," he writes.
A decade ago, officials of England's Football Association grew tired of poor performances by their age-group teams and national squad in international competitions and began looking at all aspects of player development. One of their most controversial conclusions was that youth leagues put too much emphasis on winning at the expense of developing skills.
A few years ago, the FA decreed that leagues for the youngest players should do away with season-ending