Ambitious young athletes are increasingly turning to sports psychologists for help with fears, phobias, and just plain negative thinking according to this NY Times article. This follows a trend in which kids are specializing in one sport with the hopes of winning college scholarships or the chance to play with premier travel clubs. In support of this effort, “the families of young athletes routinely pay for personal strength coaches, conditioning coaches, specialized skill coaches like pitching or hitting instructors, nutritionists and recruiting consultants,” the article says. “Now, the personal sports psychologist has joined the entourage.”
According to the article, parents who believe their child might just have what it takes are taking their cue from stories like that of Tiger Woods, whose dad had him out hitting golf balls as a small child. So they start them young and take it seriously. “Parents tell me that they’ve put so much money into their child’s athletic development that they’re not going to leave any stone unturned if it might help them achieve,” said Marty Ewing, a former president of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology. But the article says, many sports psychologists, including those who see young athletes, say they wonder if the treatment is not overkill in a youth sports landscape bursting with excess.
“On the one hand, it’s foolish not to teach kids mental skills they may need,” said Daniel Gould, a sports psychologist who is also the director of Michigan State’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. “On the flip side, is it just contributing to the professionalism of childhood? Because these kids aren’t playing for the New York Yankees. And worse, I worry that some parents are doing it just because their neighbor did it for his kid.”
Young athletes sometimes struggle with the same issues that adult athletes face, problems like pre-game jitters or post-game frustrations that impede performance. One nine-year old girl in the article who excelled at gymnastics suddenly developed a fear of jumping from one bar to the other in the uneven bars event. She consulted with a sports psychologist, at a cost of $225 per hour for twelve sessions over the course of five months. “It made such a difference,” she told the Times. The girl performed well at the recent national and Junior Olympic competitions. “It was a phobia,” said her mother. “A mental block that hindered her ability to compete.”
But there are concerns that the demands of such high-level performance are too much. “If an 11-year-old is told that focusing on one sport is all that matters, it obviously puts a lot of pressure on every outcome in that sport,” Dr. Ewing said. “We are asking that 11-year-old to play a game at a level that is disproportionate to his or her cognitive development. That’s development you can’t rush, but people try.”
This is the part that makes me squeamish. When I was a kid I didn’t have the discipline or focus to develop professional-level skills at anything. Well, maybe at talking on the phone, but no one was interested in watching me compete at that. Too bad, I could have been a contender.
It makes me feel kind of bad for these kids who are striving so hard. Knowing that your parents are shelling out such serious dough for you to be able to compete on that level, it’s a lot of pressure for a kid. But then again, maybe it feels great to have your parents believe in you that much and your ability to succeed. I just don’t know. What do you all think? Have any of you been on either side of this issue, either as a child athlete or as a parent?