- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2000

I see the American Academy of Pediatrics is making recommendations to us on how our children should compete in athletics. Is this another collection of busybodies lecturing us on either the obvious or the absurd? That is usually the busybodies' way. Organizations set up to tell us about how to educate or otherwise raise our children usually have some ax to grind. Often they are driven by some ideological demon.

At ease. This is one of the rare occasions when a professional group interested in youth is acting in a perfectly common-sense way. What put me on guard was the headline asserting that the American Academy of Pediatrics was remonstrating against "specialization" by young people in a particular sport. The physical education departments of many of the country's universities and I would assume high schools adopted the notion a generation ago that specialization in a particular sport was bad. The consequence has been young people dabbling in many sports or recreations and developing a devotion to no sport at all. Usually this means that as soon as a student is out of college any serious effort to participate in sport ends.

Yet my alarm over the American Academy of Pediatrics' statement was unwarranted. The Academy was warning against pressuring children into specialization. Apparently parents driven by dreams of scholarships and professional careers for their children have been known to insist on specialization by pre-adolescent youngsters. I have known such pushy parents, and you have too. At Wimbledon, it was reported last week, tyrannical parents overseeing their daughters' careers pose a problem to organized tennis.

I remember in amateur swimming at the international level there was always the problem of the tyrannical parent. The Academy of Pediatrics points out that the problem begins early and can be damaging to young peoples' health, to say nothing of their sense of fun. "Children need to be children, and they need to develop and go through certain stages of learning about themselves," Dr. Tom Rowland, a member of the Academy's Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness, observes. His committee goes on to make the perfectly sensible point that "Research supports the recommendation that child athletes avoid early sports specialization. Those who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after reaching the age of puberty tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries, and adhere to sports play longer than those who specialize early."

This squares with my decades of experience with sports, from childhood to middle age. I would add that the sports prodigies whom I have known who were pushed relentlessly by their parents grew up to be insufferably boring. I shall name no names, but I can point to a half-dozen athletes I have known. The number of accumulated gold medals, national titles, and world records is staggering. Each grew up to be a nitwit a boring nitwit. The many others who came from broader backgrounds and engaged insport with less pressure from parents became better citizens and stuck with sport longer. After all, we should enter sport not purely to be the best but to be the best we can be for the sake of good health and our own personal amusement.

As I say, what aroused my hackles when I saw the news reports on the Academy's findings was the prevenient sense that here again was another propaganda statement. But no, it is common sense based on research. As for the reigning wisdom in the universities that college-age students avoid specialization, that is actually damaging sports and recreation. At a certain age, mastery of one or two sports provides far more satisfaction than dabbling in many. It also provides better development of muscle groups and skills. Some of the sports that are the best conditioners and the most fun, for instance handball, demand specialization. Such heresy will not be heard in many physical education departments.

Will the universities' bias on behalf of dabbling be overthrown? I doubt it. In the education establishment, fatuous ideas live on and on. I see that the Heritage Foundation has just released another report establishing that class size is of no consequence to educational achievement. This has been known since the authoritative Coleman Report more than four decades ago. No competent argument refutes it. Yet the education establishment wants smaller classes and more teachers, no matter how mediocre. Thus it will not be persuaded. In education, the only hope is competition from outside the education establishment. Gratefully, the American Academy of Pediatrics is not up against such a stone wall

R. Emmett Tyrrell is a editor in chief of the American Spectator.

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