WESTLAKE, Ohio – Ponytails bounce to the unsteady rhythm of multicolored balls thudding off dozens of tiny knees, heads and feet. As parents watch from nearby bleachers, the girls enjoy themselves in the shrinking sunlight, kicking and giggling as they move around orange cones like a swarm of bees. For some of the 7- and 8-year-olds, though, play soon will become more serious. Their names have been whispered to area high school coaches and local top soccer clubs with travel budgets and paid instructors. Next spring, independent consultants, hired by the city’s soccer association to avoid favoritism, will supervise tryouts and separate the kids based on talent. The snapshot is of an American youth sports culture that has grown more extreme in recent years. There are huge benefits that can come with being a child athlete – learning leadership and social skills, teamwork and physical well-being, to name a few. But, increasingly, athletic achievement has come at a steep price: burnout, serious injuries, steroid use, growing inequity between poor children and those better off, and less enjoyment. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORERose Parade grand marshal Rita Moreno talks New Year’s Day outfit and ‘West Side Story’ remake “Kids say they aren’t having fun anymore,” said Dr. Bruce Svare, director of the National Institute for Sports Reform. “Sports for young kids should not be about building better athletes or winning every game. We need to be building better people, and we’re not.” Studies show that by the time these girls reach age 13, 70 percent of them will quit soccer and other team sports, shelving them for good like once-loved dolls from their childhood. The kids who abandon organized sports will say they’ve been turned off by too many practices, too many games, too many tournaments and in some cases, overbearing parents. A counterrevolution is under way in several states. From Ohio to Maine to New Jersey, leaders have begun efforts they hope can contain parts of a youth sports environment that experts believe has strayed dangerously out of bounds. Some not ready Tennis became a sports oasis for Amanda Chartrand. Now 16, she wasn’t ready for the intensity or competition of a select basketball team while in elementary school. From October until spring, it was basketball nearly around-the-clock as her team practiced four times per week and played in weekend tournaments. “The practices were really hard,” said Chartrand, of Miamisburg, Ohio. “My mind and my body weren’t exactly ready for it. Going into it, I was overwhelmed.” She had joined the team in second grade, quit, and returned as a sixth-grader. Chartrand’s tale is typical of American kids being funneled into sports programs almost as soon as they can walk. “Parents buy into two myths,” Svare said. “One is that their kids need to be specializing in one sport early on because that will give them a jump. And two, is that early success is not an indicator of athletic success later on.” Chartrand grew to love the travel, her team’s expensive warmups and other perks. But the intense competition took its toll. Eventually the demanding practices, academic pressures, extracurricular interests and a desire to pursue tennis soured her on basketball. If she had to do it all over, she would have chosen not to start playing basketball so young. “I was so burned out on it from doing it repetitively year after year,” Chartrand said. As educators and others work to fix problems, they hope to re-educate parents. “We look at these kids with the stars on their helmets and pinstripes on their uniforms and we think they are miniaturized adults,” said Gregg Heinzmann, director of the Youth Sports Research Council at Rutgers University. “But they don’t think like we do, they don’t understand like we do. We’ve professionalized youth sports to an excessive level.” The stakes are high for parents. As college tuition skyrockets, some push their children to work hard in the classroom and in the gym while chasing scholarships, dreams of Olympic medals or the infinitesimal chance that little Johnny or Susie will become the next Tiger Woods, LeBron James or Michelle Wie. “Parents are under tremendous pressure,” said Dr. Frank Smoll, a sports psychologist at the University of Washington who has been studying youth athletics since the 1970s. “Kids can’t just be good academically and athletically. They have to excel and be great athletes, musicians and computer whizzes, and it’s starting as soon as the kids are out of the cradle.” Time for change Shari Wahl entered into soccer motherhood with trepidation. Covered with a blanket on a drizzly, damp October evening, Wahl is one of several soccer moms – and dads – dotting the sideline as their little girls practice dribbling, passing and other skills. Wahl had heard frightening tales of out-of-control parents, three-days-per-week practices, families running nonstop and kids getting seriously hurt. She signed up her 7-year-old daughter, Natalie, for Westlake’s popular soccer program anyway, not wanting her to miss the fun. “I was a little worried at first,” Wahl said. “I don’t like all the competition for such little kids.” Now, she couldn’t imagine Natalie without soccer. In a short period, she’s seen her child’s self-esteem blossom. And Wahl has yet to come across any of the crazed parents she was told to fear. “This has been an eye-opener for me,” she said. “But I’ve been told the parents get worse as the girls get older.” Many of today’s youth sports trends aren’t new, but rather 21st century versions of a sports-driven culture in the U.S. where talk radio, 24-hour cable TV networks and the Internet feed an insatiable desire for scores, statistics and standings. A few years ago, it would be hard to imagine personal trainers charging $50 an hour to teach basketball to 5-year-olds. Or that a sports drink, containing as much caffeine as 1 1/2 cups of coffee, would be marketed for 4-year-olds. Or that an online recruiting service would rank sixth-grade basketball players. “Sports have become a firmly entrenched part of our society,” Smoll said. “We have some major problems, and it’s time to roll up our sleeves, get in there and fix them.” Robert Cobb, a lifelong athlete, first was exposed to a darker side of youth sports in the 1970s. While coaching his own children, he watched overzealous parents pushing their kids to play harder and saw unruly parents yelling at Little League umpires, basketball referees and football officials. “It’s OK to be competitive, but not with 6-year-olds,” said Cobb, dean of the University of Maine’s College of Education. “That’s ludicrous.” In subsequent years, Cobb noted a huge turnover in sports administration positions and coaching jobs in Maine and elsewhere. He discovered in almost every instance that the person had left the previous job because of an incident – or several – at a sporting event or as a result of a bad experience with an athlete’s parent. Adding to Cobb’s consternation were jarring headlines of sports-related assaults around the country. Among them: Thomas Junta of Reading, Mass., upset over rough play in his son’s youth hockey game, beat another father to death at the rink in 2001. “We said, ‘Wait a minute, this is out of control. We need to take a hard look at this,”‘ Cobb said. Perhaps more than any other state, Maine has taken the lead in youth sports reform, developing a federally funded program called “Sports Done Right” that tries to de-emphasize the kind of cutthroat competition that turns kids off from sports at an early age. Other goals are to promote good sportsmanship, discourage one-sport specialization and advocate participation over performance. Cobb has heard from youth recreation groups in 39 states asking for help. “People are ready for change,” he said. In Ohio, the Parks and Recreation Association has developed a similar program, “Our Promise to Kids,” which encourages communities to make sports a positive experience. Organizations must agree to abide by guidelines on parental behavior and accept that all children be allowed to play – regardless of their skill level. Chartrand, whose childhood was consumed by basketball, said taking a break from the intensity may have been just what she needed. She’s thinking about going out for the high school basketball team this fall. “I spent so much time on it, it would be a shame not to use it,” she said.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!