Measuring Ambition in Afterschool Activities

Despite the arrival of summer (which has been way too hot thus far in Boston for my taste!), I've been writing, thinking, and talking about children's afterschool activities more than ever. This is mainly related to the release of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, set for September 1, but also because of the release of a new paper published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine. The paper, "Pediatric Sports Injuries: An Age Comparison of Children Versus Adolescents," is the first paper out of my post-doctoral fellowship on youth sports injuries-- an interest that was a natural outgrowth of my research for Playing to Win as I saw children injured through their participation in soccer and dance. This paper, completed in conjunction with sociologist/demographer/friend Rebecca Casciano and doctors at Boston Children's Hospital (where the data are from), shows that younger children are more likely to suffer acute injuries from participation in organized sports, while older children are more likely to sustain overuse injuries. Whatever the age, sport, or type of injury, a surprising number of children require surgery to correct their injuries (40%).

The American Journal of Sports Medicine

This work shows one of the potential pitfalls of participation in competitive activities, but my latest entry at Psychology Today, "Measuring Ambition in Today's Youth," highlights a potential benefit: demonstrating ambition in youth. The piece talks about why it's important to measure and show ambition, and links this to some recent beauty pageant experiences I have had as well.

The case of Missy Franklin also highlights benefits (college scholarships, world travel, international acclaim, likely millions in endorsements some day) to competitive children's sports. This great article in the Youth Sports edition of ESPN The Magazine (here on the web with ESPNw) includes a quote from yours truly and a plug for Playing to Win. Very exciting!

Also very exciting was that Playing to Win was included in some amazing company on this reading list about increased consumption among middle class families in the US. I figure this may be the only time I'm mentioned on the same list as Adam Smith, so I better enjoy it! Maybe you'll find some summer reading here to tide you over until my book is released... :)

Happy 4th!

Pint-Sized Football Phenoms

We're in the midst of multiple football seasons-- Pop Warner, high school, college, and pros-- and, like anything, we have some good and some bad stories. The bad stories focus on injuries and over-involved adults.  Massachusetts and New England are no strangers to crazy youth sports parents and physical altercations (as I wrote about in last month's Boston Magazine).  While hockey parents were named the whackiest, football parents came in a close second.  Given that, it's no surprise that MA youth football season has been making headlines-- both in the region and nationally.  Following a September game between two Central Massachusetts teams which resulted in five preteen players sustaining concussions, adult coaches and officials were suspended and banned for allowing aggressive play to go on for so long.  In general the reaction has been negative mainly because of the new culture surrounding football in general with regard to head injuries, especially when it comes to the youth game.

But just as we have become more concerned over the safety of youth football players, we also have seen a rise in the number of pint-sized football phenoms.  An article in the October 15th issue of The New Yorker by Ben McGrath, "Head Start: Steve Clarkson grooms future quarterbacks for the pros," sheds light on private coaching for young quarterbacks, which can start as soon as kids hit double digits.  It's not surprising that organizations like Clarkson's Dreammaker Academy exist, given society's penchant for rewarding precocity and athletic achievement.  What is surprising about the article is the extent to which some parents will go to get their children in with Clarkson and college coaches-- like holding their sons back a year in middle school (different from academic redshirting in kindergarten), paying thousands of dollars for an hour session, or changing schools (sometimes mid-year, sometimes across state lines, and sometimes inventing a new school from scratch).  McGrath rightly points out that it has taken a surprisingly long time to cultivate football prodigies (partly because size is so important, but unclear until kids get older), but given the intricacy behind the quarterback position it makes sense that this would be the first one to see the youngest of the pint-sized football phenoms.

Even though I hope my own son won't be a pint-sized football phenom someday-- primarily because of concerns about head injuries (and I'm not the only mom who thinks this!)-- I would be thrilled if he displayed the type of character these pint-sized football phenoms have shown this fall.  Yes, these are the good stories and you may need a tissue after you read them.

1) Heartwarming story about a senior football star in Ohio, Michael Ferns, who intentionally went out of bounds so that a freshman, Logan Thompson, could score. Why? Thompson's father had just passed away from a stroke two days before.  Special moment in video and pictures can be seen here.

2) Great story about a NJ kicker, Anthony Starego, who helped his team win recently.  What's special about his story is that he has pretty severe autism.  I also love that his team has fully accepted him and they make sure that no one bullies him.  Just hope that all of the people discussed in this story are safe after Hurricane Sandy.

3) But  the best story in my opinion is about Carson Jones and Chy Johnson.  Chy has a brain disorder and had been severely bullied. Her mom spoke to Jones, the star quarterback of an undefeated high school team in AZ.  Jones and his teammates took Chy under their wings and had her sit with them at lunch.  Everyday.  I first read about this on the 27th in New York Daily News. I was not at all surprised to see that ESPN picked up the story a few days later.  Rick Reilly's story about Chy and her boys moved me even more deeply-- though didn't mention if the team was still undefeated. No matter what the outcome of their season is, this are remarkable young men. I dare you to read about them and not tear up a bit.

While Carston likely won't be on any undefeated football teams, I hope he is an honorable man like Carson Jones.  I hope he appreciates people's differences-- the good and the bad-- and can root for others.  He attended his first football game this weekend (Harvard vs. Columbia, and he cheered the Crimson on to victory).  Even fans can be pint-sized phenoms.

Picking Teams Based On Player Size Not Age Could Reduce Injuries, Level Playing Field (from Moms Team Blog)

This first appeared on Moms Team Blog (The Trusted Source for Sports Parents) on April 9, 2012 as part of April's National Youth Sports Safety Month. To read it on their website click HERE. As a sociologist my work has focused primarily on the family and the educational system, two powerful institutions in childhood socialization.

But during the course of my previous research on competitive childhood activities as a PhD candidate at Princeton University, I learned about the ways in which a third institution, the health care system, also shapes the lives of children. This led me to pursue a post-doctoral fellowship in health policy, which I completed in 2011 as a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar at Harvard University.

With 52 million American children participating in organized youth sports, more and more kids are dealing with sports-related injuries. Recently, media attention has focused on the common injuries among youth athletes, especially overuse injuries and concussions.  I have studied activities in which children get injured, such as soccer and dance, so I have seen first-hand how these injuries impact the children, alter their friendships, and often disrupt their families.

Because I am a social scientist, I come at the subject of youth sports injuries from a societal and institutional perspective. In other words, I'm curious how social structures shape the environment that leads to youth sports injuries.  For instance, I write about how we got to a state of hyper-competition that leads to year-round seasons, which can lead to overuse injuries.

As a post-doctoral fellow, and now as a research affiliate at Harvard University's Malcolm Wiener Center and Princeton University's Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, I have been especially interested in how children's activities are organized by age, and how this might impact youth sports injuries. There have always been scandals in youth activities in which an athlete has lied about their true age, a subject which I not only find fascinating, but which I think might have some impact on youth sports injuries as well.

I am currently working on research about the relative-age effect and youth sports injuries.  What is the relative-age effect? In his 2008 bestseller, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell made popular a phenomenon long known to academics: the relative-age effect, whereby children born during certain months of the year have a developmental advantage over children born in other months, because of the way that schools and athletic clubs choose their age cutoffs.

Gladwell focused on NHL players, 60% of whom were born in January, February, and March. He believed that those born earlier in the calendar year have an advantage over those born in December who are almost a full year younger because they are developmentally more advanced, both mentally and physically.  Hence the relative-age effect.

Older kids who excel early because of their strength are selected for All-Star teams and receive more attention from coaches. This means that younger players often self-select out, leaving the athletic realms to their older peers, never giving themselves - or being given - a chance to physically catch up (e.g. late bloomers).

The relative-age effect is real: both in sports and in academics. Just how much do I believe it? Well, when I gave birth to my first child, a boy, earlier this year I did my best to carry him until after New Year's, just in case the cut-off for any future activity in which he participates is January 1.  He was born on January 4th, so only time will tell how much I influenced my future/budding athlete.

But the relative-age effect may also mean that those athletes born earlier in a calendar year, who tend to be larger and stronger, are less likely to be injured, and perhaps more likely to injure their smaller opponents and teammates.  So the hypothesis we are testing is whether children born later in the year (for example, June-September, if the participation cutoff date is January 1) are more likely to be injured.

The results of our research so far are promising, but are preliminary, so it is too early to draw definite conclusions.  But if the data shows a link between relative age and sports injuries, it may prompt youth sports programs to group kids by size, rather than age, not only reducing the advantage some kids have simply by the accident of when in the year they are born but reducing the number of injuries that result from bigger, stronger and more skilled players colliding with smaller, weaker, less skilled players.

High Kicks: The Latest in Competitive Dance and Soccer from Choreography Theft to Poaching to Year-round Commitments (and Injuries)

Lifetime's Season 2 of Dance Moms continues to get sillier and sillier as the contrivances spin out faster than a terrible fouetté turn.  What can you say when Kendall leaves Abby's studio and ends up at Candy Apples in Ohio besides, "Yeah, right! Producer interference!" in Episode 8, "The Runaway Mom?" And Abby's decision to have the girls compete as burlesque dancers in Episode 9's "Topless Showgirls" is so obviously meant to shock it's painful.  The show, unsurprisingly, made headlines after that tasteless move (even I admit to being mortified when Abby yelled out, "Crotch! Boobs!" in rehearsal).

[Not surprisingly, and somewhat reassuringly, Lifetime is not allowing any rebroadcasts of this episode. Pushed the envelope TOO far (toward pedophilia), clearly. Love the following line from this March 23rd article about the episode being pulled: "Coincidentally, the yanked episode contains a subplot in which a child is transformed into a literal piece of meat."]

But once in the while the show does manage to say something interesting about the state of competitive dance.  Previously they touched on the issue of parents lying about their children's age and age fallbacks. Runaway mom Jill's departure in Episode 8 allowed Abby to discuss a serious issue in dance: choreography theft. Sometimes studios steal choreography from others that they see at competitions, which has long been an issue on the competitive circuit, as I discovered during my research.  But dance isn't just about creativity and artistry-- it is also a business, especially for studio owners like Abby. That choreography is her work product, so when Kendall uses it to "win" for someone else that is a form of intellectual property theft.  (I found this interesting article about what whether or not dance teachers employed by a studio owner own their own choreography after they leave. The issue is similar to one scientists face while working for a university or corporation. The short answer is that, no, they do not own it when they have been paid by someone else to create it.)

The reason why Kendall's defection affected Abby so much though is that it appeared as if Kathy "poached" her-- though this wasn't really what happened.  Another thing I discovered during my research is that poaching (when a coach or organization "steals" a student away from another coach or program) is common in lots of competitive children's activities. But I heard about it most often in travel soccer. In some areas the problem had previously been so bad that leagues had developed rules that once a season started a player was not allowed to switch and play for another team.  Most of the poaching took place in the spring/summer, as team compositions could shift more easily.

Now, with new rules that talented soccer players won't be allowed to play for both a development academy club team (which are at an even higher level than competitive, travel teams) and their high school's team, I expect this to become an even more weighty issue for players. With a year-round season that demands so much commitment it will be interesting to see how American soccer develops and performs over the next decade.  This move seems to be an attempt to unify training procedures-- though we still haven't yet reached true national training programs for young kids, in the grand tradition of many Communist countries.

But this move does signal a hat tip to the ways in which many European soccer ("football") clubs operate. Last week's Times article reminded me of an excellent piece Michael Sokolove wrote in 2010 for The New York Times Magazine: "How A Soccer Star is Made."  Sokolove identified some telling differences in the ways that Americans and Europeans develop child soccer players. He wrote, "Americans like to put together teams, even at the Pee Wee level, that are meant to win...Americans place a higher value on competition than on practice, so the balance between games and practice in the U.S. is skewed when compared with the rest of the world. It’s not unusual for a teenager in the U.S. to play 100 or more games in a season, for two or three different teams, leaving little time for training and little energy for it in the infrequent moments it occurs. A result is that the development of our best players is stunted."  We'll see if this shifts over time.

One likely negative outcome of this highly competitive year-round soccer season is an increase in injuries.  Youth sports injuries continue to garner a lot of attention and concern amongst both medical practitioners and parents. Check out this somewhat disturbing report sponsored by Little League Baseball now saying that they can't say for sure that throwing curveballs hurt young players.

So, what would you chose for your child? Curveballs, year-round seasons, or burlesque dance routines?

Why Summer Camp Isn't as Safe as You Think (on The Huffington Post Parents)

It was a hot Monday morning in July and he was dribbling a soccer ball when it happened. Twelve-year-old Joshua Thibodeau was at a soccer camp last month when he suddenly collapsed. Within 45 minutes, he was dead. By all accounts Joshua Thibodeau's death was a tragic accident. Yes, it was hot, but he had just had a water break. Yes, the three coaches working at the camp, including one EMT, followed proper procedures. And, yes, little Joshua had undergone a medical exam within the past year clearing him to play soccer. With the autopsy results still pending it's useless to speculate on his cause of death (Sudden cardiac death syndrome? Dehydration? Seizure?). But it's useful to reflect on what parents can learn from this tragedy, especially as the fall sports season gears up.

Summer camps started in the United States in the 1880s, mainly for affluent boys. By the 1930s niche camps developed for girls, religious groups, and immigrants. These sleepaway and day camps focused on outdoor activities and a range of group activities and competition, like Color Wars.

While traditional summer camps still exist, in the twenty-first century it is specialty camps that have proliferated. Specialty camps focus on a specific activity -- like the soccer camp where Josh Thibodeau was playing. Middle- and upper-middle class parents opt to use the summer months to help their children develop concrete skills and credentials that will help them throughout the next year, and in the years leading up to the college admissions race.

Top-notch camp counselors are sought out for these specialty camps so that "the best" can teach kids how to be "the best." But just who are these camp counselors, and how qualified are they to be working with young kids? Unlike teachers, camp counselors are neither required to be certified to work with young children nor to be treated as experts in a given subject area (like soccer, tennis, dance, chess, etc.).

Click HERE to keep reading on The Huffington Post Parents!