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Sports and Kids: What’s Too Young? What’s Too Hard?


I don’t have children, but I’ve coached them, and I’ve watched my friends’ kids get into athletics. It’s incredible how early (and clearly!) some kids’ athletic ability becomes apparent. My best friend, Jami, was fast and agile, and a tremendous jumper. Always. She started out tiny, like a hummingbird, and then grew to my height in high school (a little over 5-foot 8-inches) and retained that speed. It wasn’t effortless—she worked as hard or harder than anybody I knew—but she remained fast and able to out-jump girls with several inches on her.

This New York Times article got me thinking about Jami. She was lightning fast, and her parents definitely encouraged her to do what she could to enhance that talent, but when the day came that she no longer wanted to run track, that was it. It wasn’t for her, and that was fine. She just focused on other sports.

The girls featured in the article, Kaytlynn Welsch, 12, and her sister Heather, 10, clearly have an amazing talent for endurance running. They regularly run against—and beat—adults in the kinds of races many of us would shy away from even entering due to the grueling nature. A half marathon on a hilly trail is not for the weak. They say they love to run. They love to race. They have regular doctor checkups and are taken in for any types of aches or pains they experience. And, perhaps most importantly, according to the article, the girls are always given the option of whether or not they want to race.

But they’re 10 and 12 years old and getting knocked around on 13 miles of muddy, difficult trail by adults more than twice their size.

Endurance Sports vs. Team Sports

Think about how many middle school kids you know who are seriously into at least one sport or physical activity. I know at that age I was taking four types of dance classes (I’m still a pretty badass tap dancer), doing gymnastics, on my school basketball and volleyball teams, and my parents were driving me 90 minutes (each way) on Sundays for my AAU basketball team practice. I loved it all, and I don’t think it ever bothered me to have to miss a party or something because I had practice.

Then again, I was doing all of those things with a class or a team, so I was still getting interaction with kids my own age.

I wasn’t nearly as talented at anything as those girls clearly are, but considering how much time (and money, and energy) my parents spent on all the things I was involved in, I can imagine that, had I been an absolute prodigy at something, we would’ve looked at ways for me to compete at whatever level would give me a challenge. After all, I was occasionally in dance classes with high school and college students (what, are you surprised?), so if that had been an option for whatever sport I might’ve excelled in, and I loved doing it, why not?

My Fit Bottomed Line

I think seeing girls their age (and size) competing in a hardcore endurance race is a little bit shocking, but I also think it’s important to hear the full story on situations like this before passing judgement. I love seeing kids at triathlons, whether they’re competing or cheering on a parent. It’s inspiring to me that, at a time when childhood obesity is such an issue, there are children who are learning to love a sport that embraces people of nearly all ages. It’s hard to say at what point I think it becomes a problem.

Of course, at some point, for some kids, it is a problem. But I think limits need to be set on a case-by-case basis. So long as these girls have teachers and doctors and other adults around to weigh in, and so long as their parents are listening to those outside sources (as well as the girls themselves), well, what right do any of us have to criticize?

It’s also good to realize that these girls are anomalies. A child with the kind of ability, drive, and love of competition that these girls exhibit is highly unusual. Your son might be incredibly quick, but does he enjoy putting the work in? Does he want to get up at 5 a.m. every Saturday morning to travel to a track meet? Does he care that much about winning? Or is it you (or your spouse, or a coach) who’s really got that desire to see him win?

The line between encouraging an athletically talented child and pushing too hard is a very fine one. Have you ever been on either side of this issue? How did you handle it? —Kristen

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1 Comment
  1. I really enjoyed reading your post. I am a 40’s chick and I too, have a hard time understanding the competitive sports “thing” for young children. As a parent coach and therapist, I have seen increasing numbers of kids who are dealing with anxiety and stress issues, some to the point of interfering with their everyday life. Whether or not the two are related, anxiety and competition at a young age, I am not sure. I do know that the way parents act, (and other adults such as coaches teachers), about their child’s participation and performance in sports and other activities.

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