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How To Contribute To Your Child's Self-Worth By Helping Them Balance Life with Sports

Nineteen-year-old Billy Saylor died of a heart attack. Twenty-two-year-old Joe Larosa died of kidney failure. Twenty-one-year-old Jeff Reece died from kidney failure and a heart malfunction. These three young men were from different parts of the county, were different ages, yet they shared a common bond. They all were wrestlers and their dedication to the sport killed them.

Although these boys were in college, their practices of "giving their all" did not begin there. The varying practices, rituals and routines in which young athletes participate begin as early as the junior high or middle school level. In addition, various requirements that are set for participation, by the athletic programs themselves, may only add to whatever harmful actions, such as weight maintenance or reduction, these children feel they must do "all for the game."

Wrestlers are not the only athletes subject to strict requirements for participation. Other programs such as gymnastics, football, swimming and track have set standards that decide both participation as well as position on the team. "I was told that I could not try out for any other position then a lineman due to my size and weight," says Alec S., a seventh grade student from Chester, Va. "When I decided to play football, I began training with my dad to be a receiver or a safety. I was told by my coaches that if I wanted to play either of the two positions, I needed to lose [30 pounds] before the next weigh-in, which was only two weeks away."

Exercising excessively, wearing rubber exercise suits and restricting fluid and food intake are only a few of the ways these young athletes attempt to alter themselves for sports participation. Other methods become as serious as taking diuretic or prescription medication, laxatives or excessive amounts of various body-building supplements. These practices, over time, can damage a young athlete's body. The damages can include kidney failure, amenorrhea, liver damage, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dehydration, stroke, even heart attack or death.

Children are not born with this drive to perform athletically. This drive is given to these children through an outside source. Whether the source is parents, coaches, peers or the potential of a college scholarship, young athletes will often push themselves to accommodate their "driving force."

According to Shepard Smith, president and founder of the Institute for Youth Development, "Young athletes will push themselves beyond what they are physically, mentally and emotionally capable [of], if only to please the others around them. It is not uncommon for a young child to participate in a program or sport that they really do not care for to earn the respect of their peers...the affection of their parents, or even social standing in the school or community."

Although there are rules and regulations set by school administrators that will restrict a young athlete's participation in the event their grades are not at a "C" level or better, could schools themselves be partially responsible for athletes pushing themselves beyond their limits?

Often times, school systems tend to place strong emphasis on sports. "Our high school is famous in this part of the state for sports," says Michelle Pearson of Leaf River, Ill. "Our boys' football team won the state championship and our girls' basketball team was part of the 'elite eight.' In contrast, our academic bowl team won the state championship and our science and engineering team will be traveling to the state finals. There's not nearly as much of a fuss, pep rallies, etc., made about that as there has been for the sports events."

With schools, parents and coaches placing emphasis upon sporting events, young athletes may begin equating their self-worth with the caliber of their performance on the field. Local newspapers often cover football, basketball and volleyball on the first few pages of the paper, but it's far less common that publicity is given to the latest wins of the local high school debate team.

Kevin Harlan, the vice president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, says, "Helping students understand where their worth comes from is very important. It doesn't come from their performance. When children get by their self-worth being based on their performance as related to their sports participation, they understand they are worth more then they ever believed. Young athletes should be taught that they need to give as much effort to all other aspects of their lives as well as sports. Children should be given as many outlets to express themselves as possible, without judgment or ridicule."

All parents want their children to exceed, but not at the cost of their health, both mental and physical, or their lives. "Sports can teach so many important lessons such as teamwork and dedication, but should never teach the lesson of 'winning is everything,'" Shepard says. "Young athletes who give their all to the game usually end up having nothing left for themselves."

According to Harlan, "The most fundamental way a parent can contribute to a child's vision of self-worth is to walk along with them. To keep the balance (of a child's worth and self esteem) the child should receive the same message at home, school and on the field."

Parents can aid their children in maintaining a healthy balance by volunteering for the Parent-Teacher Association, as a coach, assistant coach or even as a "team mother." Tasks as simple as attending practices or showing up unannounced will give parents a means of becoming involved with their child's athletic participation. In addition, it allows the parents a moderate amount of input into what the children do in relation to the conditioning or training, thus preventing any dangerous practices.

"Children are seeking direction in every aspect of their lives," Smith says. "They want their parents to be the person to give it to them the most."

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