To push or not to push? That is the question.

To be an Olympian, or any top athlete, children most often must start training in their sport at a young age. Motivation to succeed at that age comes from parents. But where’s the line between motivation and encouragement and fodder for the therapist?

For every success story like Tiger Woods, who picked up his first golf club at 18 months and with his dad’s help started competing at age 6, there’s a Todd Marinovich.

His father also trained him to be a professional athlete, a football quarterback, from the time Marinovich was a young boy. He spent his entire youth in training — no cartoons or other regular-kid activities — and on a diet, all designed to make him the best. He excelled, eventually becoming a quarterback for the Oakland Raiders in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but later self-destructed, with multiple arrests on drug charges that kept his name on the police blotter more than the sports pages.

“As parents, we should understand we can optimize our children’s development, but that is all we can do,” said Dr. Edward Bailey, chairman of pediatrics at North Shore Children’s Hospital in Salem.

“Parents should open the world of opportunity for their children so they can see the horizon of human potential,” said Bailey. “Trying to push a child beyond their abilities can be very damaging, both emotionally and physically.”

Children develop at their own pace, Bailey said. They don’t walk until they’re ready and they can’t run until they’re ready.

“You can’t make them do it sooner or better than the ability of their neurological and motor coordination skills allow,” he said.

However, some parents do try to push their children beyond their limits, and the results can be heartbreaking. Bailey has seen kids practice pitch after pitch, and in the end they damage their arms so badly they lose whatever ability they had.

Sports and recreation-related injuries were more common in youths than traffic accident injuries, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey. Kids ages 5 to 14 were the most frequently injured, with 59.3 cases per 1,000 people. That’s slightly higher than the rate for people age 15 to 24, which was 56.4 per 1,000. Most of the injuries were strains and sprains, followed by fractures.

“We tend to have this belief that kids are invincible,” said Andrew Cannon, director of sports medicine for North East Rehab in Salem, N.H. “They do get injured, quite a bit. I think injuries in these kids is very high, based on the fact, very often, they are not necessarily treated as kids. If turning kids into an Olympic athlete was safe, why not try it with everybody? It isn’t.”

Yet people try, all over the world. On a recent trip to China, Cannon visited a kindergarten where kids from around the country were selected based on their athletic prowess and future potential, and then housed together.

“They weren’t trying to make every kid into an Olympic athlete,” said Cannon, explaining that those that showed real promise were given a chance to “rise to the top” to actually become an Olympian.

However, in Cannon’s opinion, at such a young age, there’s no way to tell who can and will go the distance. And if kids could be pushed to success, he thinks, there would be more young star athletes.

Cannon says the most important thing for adults to realize is that girls ages 13 to 15 and boys ages 16 to 19 may still be growing, and may not be ready to train or practice like an adult in certain sports like softball or football.

“You can have a guy who is a junior in high school, driving friends to school, shaving and still has growth plates because his skeleton hasn’t matured,” he said. “Kids are smaller than us (adults); they have less surface area and they are less efficient in cooling themselves — they can overheat a lot easier.”

In addition to a physical toll, there can be emotional price to pay, as well, for kids who are pushed to train hard in athletics.

“A child is imprisoned in a world of living out their parents’ dream,” said Newburyport psychologist Jonathan Davis. “That is very detrimental to a child and the relationship between a child and parent.”

Davis said parents need to really listen to children, and just love them for who they are, not who they would like them to be.

Bailey said it’s a parent’s job to build a child’s self-esteem, not destroy it.

“I have been around quite a while. There were always Little League parents pushing their kids,” Bailey said. “I think it’s human nature. What parent doesn’t want their kid to excel and get a college scholarship?”

Rosemary Ford writes for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass.


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