Youth Sports — What Does It Really Lead To?

In reading this article from the New York Times, I found myself making connections to both my practice of healing and my role in the Yoga community. The article describes the competitive culture of youth sports, and the pressure by adults to perform, underscoring the alarming rate of overuse-injury at very young ages. As early as 1952, national groups were criticizing the “high-pressure elements” of youth sports programs. And it has only gotten more pervasive today. What I noticed was a strong correlation between these examples of competitive youth sports and injury, and the pain patterns I treat today. I have no statistics, but the more people I treat in my massage therapy practice, the more I hear these words, "I played soccer (or any other sport) when I was young, and my knee (neck, shoulder, elbow, back...) has never been the same. It's sore all the time!  I'm not old enough to feel this old."  It has become apparent to me as well, that the pressure to push hard has continued for most of these student athletes into adulthood. Sometimes it's a good thing — work ethic, focus and determination are great take-aways — but many times, these folks water ski, snowboard, run, rock-climb, or do YOGA past the point of health, and push into injury. They willfully put pain aside to go farther. And for what?? There is no little plastic trophy or letterman's badge at the end of why push?

Because we have learned to push. In the world where accomplishment outweighs all, we have left common sense behind. We constantly leave behind our instincts, that voice in the back of the head that says, "that 'pop' wasn't good...but it doesn't hurt TOO bad, I can keep going." I see this in the yoga culture now too. With new styles constantly touted as the way to firm abs, thin thighs and weight loss, the desire to compete (even with one's self) is being exploited by business people. Yoga students are often encouraged to push far beyond their limits, resulting in injury and pain. Newbies to yoga in today's world see airbrushed images of sweat-covered, muscled bodies and say, "I want that"...nevermind that that body likely took years to sculpt, and probably not with yoga alone. Students constantly ask how long it will take to reach a certain point...when will I be strong enough, stretchy enough, when will my heels touch the ground, when will I be able to do headstand? If you tell them the truth, that it may take a lifetime, they are not satisfied. They expect instant gratification, quantifiable outcomes. But the body usually rejects that. Push too far, too fast and INJURY WILL OCCUR. These injuries will only set the body back further, leading to more time to reach those all-important goals.

As yoga teachers, we must recognize these patterns for all they are worth and teach for awareness. While there is something to be said for using tapas, facing fears and persevering through difficulty, we have to remain self-aware. Without awareness, we can't hear the voice of our inner intelligence; we move out of the pain of growth and into the pain of injury. We cannot take responsibility for the drive to compete within our students, we can teach a class that encourages moderation, internal conversations and assessment. We can also drive home the fact that there are no magic bullets, there are no quick-fixes...we can teach that a life-long practice will get you exactly where you are meant to go.

As parents and coaches and supporting adults, we need to step back from our own egos to see that the lessons we teach our kids in the beginning of life, lead to lifelong patterns. To keep our next generations healthy and active, we need to teach them to listen to the inner voices, not the competitive chiding from the sidelines. Activities like organized sports can be powerful outlets for energy, invaluable learning experiences and social interactions, but WE have to get out of the way! If the goal is to teach them, then we must craft the lessons deliberately and not allow our own adult ego and competitive desires to outweigh the importance of a healthy mind-body. We can teach them in youth how to care for themselves and others, to cultivate compassion, and to honor their talents in appropriate measure.