The American Athlete, Age 10

October 05, 2003

Think back to when sports were just plain fun and you could play
all day, and you were good at every game, too. You were 10. It
still sounds the same out there on the field.... Hey, batter,
batter.... It's still fun, and when it's muddy, it's even more
fun. Fun and funner--that's all sports had to be when you were
10. But these days many kids at that age give up sports
altogether or arrive at a crossroads, forced to choose among
sports in order to excel at one.

In 1978 a real-estate agent showed Colman McCarthy a brick
house overlooking Friendship Playground, an Elysium of baseball
diamonds and basketball hoops in northwest Washington, D.C. It
was the easiest sale that agent would ever make. "Didn't even
bother to check the plumbing," remembers McCarthy, a writer and
teacher whose three boys grew up playing on what became an
extension of the family's front yard. ¶ Now, on summer weekdays
on that very playground, one of those boys, John McCarthy, runs
Home Run Baseball Camp. It's an enterprise that nods gratefully
to his childhood by recreating a sandlot atmosphere in which
kids don't need the intercession of an SUV-driving,
PDA-wielding baby boomer parent to amuse themselves.

To be sure, Coach Mac and his staff provide plenty of instruction
and motivation. But coaches let campers--who range in age from
five to 13--choose teams and make lineups. No one keeps score
until the final day of each weekly session. And every day the
staff turns over one hour after lunch to free-form play. "They
play a lot of pickle and tag-up," says McCarthy. "Some invent
games. Some just sit and talk. Our only rule is to stay within
the fence. It may look unorganized, but in fact it's very
organized. It allows leaders to percolate and develop. When the
kids come back to the coaches in the afternoon, they're a more
directed group. With a 10-year-old, you want him to fall for the
sport hard. He can pick up the details later."

Camp ends at 3 p.m., but McCarthy is cheered to hear many
children tell their parents to fetch them at four. They do this
for a reason that's notable in an era marked by the playdate, the
proliferation of elite travel teams and the fear parents have of
leaving their children unsupervised. It turns out that many
campers want to play stickball.

McCarthy has spent a lot of time insinuating himself into the
heads of 10-year-olds. "They aren't yet set in their ways, so
they'll absorb a lot," he says. "They're the most popular group
to coach. If I want to get my batteries recharged, I go hit
fungoes to the 10-year-olds."

There's a crossroads quality to being 10. The hormone-fired moods
of adolescence are still a ways off, but innocence is yielding to
budding sophistication. Ten-year-olds know how babies are made,
but they won't necessarily let on that they know. It's by 10 that
kids have a fully developed conscience, not just to guide their
own behavior, but also to serve as a matrix into which the
particulars of the world around them fit. "That's not fair," is a
classic 10-year-old's declaration, whether uttered to a playmate
or to Mom after a sibling has gotten away with something.
("That's unfair," Emma Eddy, a 10-year-old soccer player in
Hinesburg, Vt., said recently upon learning that the WUSA had
folded. "They should have a girls' league too. I need some sports
to play when I get older. I mean, do I want to play, like,
golf?")

Though fourth- and fifth-graders typically stand less than five
feet tall and weigh less than 100 pounds, you can have a
startlingly high-level conversation with them, during which
you're likely to learn what they unabashedly love: to be praised;
to be asked their opinion and tell you what they know; to belong,
be it to clubs or teams or other groups; and to hear true
stories, not just made-up ones. If 10 is the time to step out in
the world, Mark Twain captured the age perfectly in The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer, based on Twain's own recollections of
that period of his life.

Sports offers many of the things 10-year-olds crave. Teams are
clubs; victories and defeats are real, not made-up; and rules are
presumably applied evenly. "Ten-year-olds are collectors and
organizers," says Bob Ditter, a family therapist who practices in
the Boston area. "That's why baseball, which is very methodical
and specific, and basketball, where there are plays, appeal to
them. There's an elegance to sports that makes sense to a
10-year-old."

There's a usefulness to them too. With the 10-year-olds'
impending physical maturation, sports will soon separate them,
sometimes very quickly, according to size and skill level. And as
they prepare to move from the romantic "having fun" stage to the
technical "getting better" stage, kids can be quite aware of the
implications, for by the end of the fourth grade they've become
strikingly more realistic about their strengths and weaknesses.
"They know for sure who is really good at math and can feel that
they're not going to magically get better at it," says Michael
Thompson, a child psychologist and co-author of Raising Cain:
Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. "Indeed, if you wanted to
have a class of fourth-graders nominate their future
valedictorian, they could do it with considerable accuracy. That
ability to be realistic is a huge step forward. The sad part is
that they lose the capacity to engage in magical thinking, to
believe that they'll suddenly get much better at something at
which they're not in fact very good."

So it is that children at 10 also reach a sporting
crossroads--and as any student of the blues will tell you,
crossroads can be fraught with complications. Whereas eight-and
nine-year-olds are conformists and cultivators of wide-ranging
interests, at 10 kids might delve deeply into their passions but
have fewer of them. It's the age at which a child is likely to
either set sports aside or choose to throw himself into them--or
into one sport.

How seriously sports are taken varies around the country, but 10
seems to be the universal age of demarcation. In Garden City,
N.Y., the Little League keeps no standings for ages five through
nine but introduces that unforgiving metric for its 10-year-olds.
In the Kalispell (Mont.) Pee Wee Baseball League 10-year-olds are
consigned to "minor league" play except those who, in the cold
and determinist words set forth on the organization's website,
"are ready."

But how can you tell who is ready?

WHAT'S GOING ON INSIDE A 10-YEAR-OLD?

Ten-year-olds aren't miniature teenagers. They're preadolescent
tweens, and until puberty sets in, it's difficult to predict
which ones will blossom physically and break from the pack. At
10 Michael Jordan was still a dozen years from becoming one of
the five best basketball players on earth; in junior high he was
best at baseball and football, and at 15, as a high school
sophomore, he stood only 5'9". Nonetheless, says former NBA
forward Bob Bigelow, author of Just Let the Kids Play and
perhaps the most pointed provocateur in the lively debates over
youth sports, "Many adults have the misguided belief that
looking at a kid at this stage gives an indication of what he'll
be like down the road: 'My gosh, wait till we see him at 14, 18,
22!' But there are so many late-developing kids, and so many get
frozen out by the process."

A fully developed young athlete might wind up with a temperament
for golf, not basketball, or with the perfect distance runner's
body, not a tight end's. Yet premature specialization can
foreclose the possibility of finding that out and perhaps sour a
kid on sports entirely. "Specialization should come after medical
school, not when you're 10," says Thompson. "It leads to
heightened expectations from parents and burnout in kids." The
American Academy of Pediatrics formally opposes specialization
before a child reaches puberty, usually at 11 for girls and 12
for boys. Even former Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr., that icon
of devotion to his chosen sport, joins them (box, page 68). "My
advice to every 10-year-old baseball player is to put down your
glove at the end of the season and try something else," says
Ripken, whose 10-year-old son, Ryan, also plays soccer and
basketball. Ryan's dad believes that the balance and footwork
that soccer requires, and the explosiveness and hand-eye skills
that basketball demands, transfer easily to baseball.

There are exceptions, famous ones. But prodigies such as Tiger
Woods and the Williams sisters, whose early dominance held up
beyond puberty, play individual sports, in which the cognitive
challenge differs from that in team sports. Many sports
psychologists and physical educators believe that before age 12,
children simply aren't ready to perform the complex sequences of
skills that many team sports require, just as calculus would
flummox a kid still struggling with long division. Think about
the movements and hand-eye skills that must be strung together to
turn a pivot at second base for a double play. Or the welter of
options facing a young basketball player who has received a pass
as defenders converge on her, and as coaches, parents and even
teammates shout often-conflicting advice. Or what sports
sociologist Jay Coakley calls "the beehive effect" in youth
soccer, in which all the worker bees swarm after the queen with
the ball, spacing and positioning be damned--a common scene that
tends to drive parents and coaches nuts. Perhaps it wouldn't if
the adults reminded themselves that a typical 10-year-old
shouldn't be expected to do much else.

Still many parents want to know whether their 10-year-old has a
future. "They ask me at seven, eight, all the way up to 14, 'Is
my child wasting his time in his sport?'" says Paul Musser, a
travel-team basketball coach and camp director in South Florida.
"I always ask them to clarify that, and it invariably comes down
to, 'Are they going to get a scholarship?' And that to me is
mind-boggling."

Musser cites one of his fourth-grade basketball players, whose
dad, a basketball coach himself, enrolled him in fifth-grade
travel-team ball. But as a result of the pressure he felt, the
boy simply didn't show up. "That's the most dangerous thing about
putting too much pressure on them when they're 10," says Musser.
"By 12 they're not playing anymore. At 14 they can get into
trouble when they're not playing sports."

Ditter is treating a young athlete from an upper-middle-class
family who has just turned 11. For about six months this child
had gone on a stealing binge, lifting wallets, cellphones and
Palm Pilots from teammates, coaches, even a teacher. It turned
out the child desperately wanted to please his father, who was
extremely vocal on the sideline. "What came out was the
tremendous pressure this kid felt he was under because of
sports," Ditter says. "It was almost as if this boy was saying to
himself, 'I can't legitimately win, so I'll steal.' He breaks
down in tears and talks about how he hated himself because he
could never feel he was good enough. He's doing much better now,
not stealing anymore, but he has a tough decision: Does he want
to remain in that competitive environment?"

If youth sports can have so much influence on the 10-year-old
psyche, it can also disrupt the development of the 10-year-old
body. Dr. Lyle Micheli, director of sports medicine at Children's
Hospital Boston, used to see a steady stream of acute traumatic
injuries like broken arms and ankle sprains. Now he's treating
more and more repetitive stress injuries, particularly a disorder
called osteochondritis dissecans (OCD). It's similar to a stress
fracture, but it affects only the joint surface. And the growth
plates located at the joint surfaces are essential to the body's
healthy maturation. "Our sports medicine clinics are packed with
kids with this condition, which wasn't the case 10 to 15 years
ago," Micheli says. He recently encountered OCD in a 10-year-old
football player, while treating him for a torn anterior cruciate
ligament. With the growth plate in the injured leg affected,
surgeons will arrest the development of the healthy leg to
forestall a permanent discrepancy in length.

"There's some evidence that excessive running and pounding on the
growth plates may affect the overall growth of a child," says
Micheli. "We don't know how much is enough or too much, but we
recommend that kids between 10 and 14 not run more than three
miles a day. There's an old saying: No horse ever rode itself to
death until there was a rider on its back."

WHAT DO ADULTS WANT FROM YOUTH SPORTS?

The short answer is: far too often, more than they have any
right to expect. When its 2001 report called youth sports "a
hotbed of chaos, violence and meanspiritedness," the National
Summit on Raising Community Standards in Children's Sports
wasn't referring to some Lord of the Flies scenario in which
kids are running amok without adult supervision. Nor are
children responsible for the athletic landscape in South
Florida, where youth football programs have become feeders for
the high school powerhouses and a promising seven-year-old will
be scouted and "signed" to practice but not play on what one
disgusted parent calls "prepubescent taxi squads." Says
Thompson, "If a child has specialized in one sport or played on
select teams, she has seen a lot of adult behavior that clearly
demonstrates that this isn't 'just for fun,' as adults have been
saying. The unguarded reactions of parents on the sidelines, the
criticism of performance, the shouting at refs--it all tells
kids that this is serious stuff. No child misses the message."

Remarkably, a child might still be able to override that message.
After a recent youth soccer game in which he failed to make a
critical save, 10-year-old Adam Weinberger of Bethesda, Md., was
approached by the father of a teammate. "He said, 'You should
have gotten that one,'" Adam recalls. "'It's O.K. But you should
have gotten it.'" How did Adam react? "I was just--I really
didn't think he had any idea what he was talking about."

But far more often kids hang on the words of parents and coaches.
"Adults will emphasize competition because that's what's fun for
them," says Martha Ewing, an associate professor in sports
psychology at Michigan State. "Once they get the skills, kids
will want to compete too, but adults want them to compete now. So
they put their kids in a higher league and separate them from
their friends, which may not be what children want."

Coaches deserve their share of blame too. In doing the reporting
for his forthcoming The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting, author
Dan Doyle found 10 to be the age at which travel-team coaches
begin to exert pressure to specialize in their sport. "It's quite
common for a coach to say, 'If you don't commit to our travel
team, you'll be left in the dust by those who do,'" says Doyle.
"Of course that statement is fraught with error, but it does
happen often." Travel-team soccer coaches are notorious for this,
particularly in the spring, when travel soccer is blamed for
declining participation in baseball.

Indeed, Ripken can instantly separate the kind of youth baseball
coach he prefers from the kind who is likely to turn kids off the
game: "If you want to teach kids to hit, you tell them, 'Wait for
a good pitch to hit.' If you want to win, you tell them, 'I want
you to take until you get two strikes'--but in the end, what have
you got? You haven't taught them how to hit, only how to draw a
walk and run the bases."

WHAT DO KIDS WANT FROM YOUTH SPORTS?

Softball, basketball, time for fun
I can't wait to see everyone
Winning or losing I don't care
It's just fun to play every year
I get nervous before the game
But win or lose, I'm still the same
Play your hardest all the time
But don't take it too serious, everything will be fine
If we win, we don't brag
If we lose, we don't act sad
All these sports are true to me
Having fun is up to thee.

--SPORTS EVERY YEAR, by Lorie Borelli of Orange, Conn., written
at age 10

At first it sounds like one of those federally funded boondoggles
that former senator William Proxmire used to honor with his
Golden Fleece Awards. A 1991 study by the Institute for the Study
of Youth Sports (YSI) reached the astonishing conclusion that the
No. 1 reason 10-year-olds play sports is to have fun. Yet what's
revealing is the reasons kids were less likely to cite. "For the
challenge of competition" and "for the excitement of competition"
placed eighth and 10th, respectively, behind such motivations as
"to do something I'm good at," "to get exercise," "to learn new
skills" and "to play as part of a team." (YSI hasn't updated the
study, partly because it believes if one were done today, it
would produce similar results.)

When 10-year-olds speak, they give those findings voice. "I play
a lot of sports, but I don't excel," says Andrew Somerville of
Kensington, Md. "I can admit that I stink because I'm good at
other things, and that's just me."

"Swimming's the greatest sport they ever thought up," says
Elizabeth Beisel of North Kingstown, R.I., who holds seven
national records for 10-year-olds but also surfs, golfs, acts and
plays the violin and the piano (box, below). "I definitely don't
swim because I want to win. I know I'm not going to win every
race."

"Playing beats watching," says Jack Grodahl of Portland, "and I
love getting better. When I was eight, I couldn't really dribble
a basketball that good. I had to look down or something. I could
barely get it to the hoop." That was only two years ago--indeed,
most kids begin playing organized sports around ages eight or
nine--and that sort of newfound competency can be enormously
exciting and all that's necessary to keep a child hooked.

At the same time, over the past decade municipal recreation
leagues have been threatened by the rise of travel
teams--essentially the best players who take on their
counterparts from around the region, state and nation. Talk to
the parents and kids involved in travel-team sports, and they're
more likely to cite challenge and competition as their primary
motivations to play. "Kids want to play with and against kids who
are about the same skill level," says Jim Thompson, founder of
the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a growing movement to
certify coaches and bring rabid parents to heel. "That's good.
The downside is that parents are more invested in it. Coaches
tend to be more professional. So it's easier for the
win-at-all-costs mentality to take over."

Don DeDonatis is CEO of the U.S. Specialty Sports Association,
which invited more than 370 teams of 10-year-olds to its
three-tier World Series this summer. He believes his organization
is serving young baseball players by offering three skill levels
within each age group and by giving more advanced players a
chance to opt out of their rec leagues. "I've coached rec ball
and had kids who didn't want to be there," says DeDonatis. "Dad
signed him up because he wanted Sonny to play baseball. The kid
was looking at the sky and picking at grass."

In the world of 10-year-old travel-team baseball, there are two
schools: muscle ball, in which a team is stocked with unusually
mature kids who can hit and throw with power; and small ball,
where teams whittle out victories with polished fundamentals. The
North Alabama Vipers, a 10-and-under team that finished third at
this summer's USSSA Major World Series in Henderson, Nev., play
classic small ball. They've mastered cutoffs, 6-4-3 double plays
and bunt defense. This apparent riposte to those who believe
sequential skills are beyond the cognitive ken of 10-year-olds is
the result of the V-I-P-E-R words emblazoned on the back of a
team T-shirt: VERY INTENSE PRACTICE EQUALS RESULTS. "Bottom line,
if you teach it, they'll learn it," says team founder Ricky
Diehl. But listen to Diehl a little more, and it's clear that he
keeps his kids on a tight tether. "What a 10-year-old won't grasp
is good pitches to hit, when to steal and so on. He'll swing at a
curveball on a 3-and-0 count." That's why Vipers coaches call
every play, even every pitch, from the dugout.

"I know a lot of people don't like what we're doing," says Carey
Moseley, whose son, Cooper, has spent more than five hours in a
car to commute round-trip from the family home in Montgomery,
Ala., to play with the Vipers, who are based in Huntsville (box,
page 63). "But this isn't for everybody. Bob Bigelow [the author
and former NBA player] thinks kids at age 10 don't want to win.
Well, don't tell that to kids on this team. I'm not a criminal
because I allow my son to do this."

Certainly if adults reserve for themselves the right to pick
lineups and dictate tactics, 10-year-olds will win and win
quickly. But if kids get that authority, over time they may wind
up even better. "How do you make good decisions?" asks the PCA's
Jim Thompson. "By making bad decisions and learning from them. If
the coach is making all the decisions, how can you learn?"

Whether a 10-year-old wants most to win or to have fun, adults
shouldn't lose sight of what the child is hoping to get from
sports. Some 40 million school-age kids play some sport, yet by
13 almost one-third of those who were active as 10-year-olds will
have dropped out. "Of the friends I played soccer with at 10,
pretty much half quit by 11," says Ethan Machurat of Amesbury,
Mass., who's now 13 and still plays soccer, baseball and
basketball, and has taken up lacrosse. "A lot just skateboard and
don't do anything else."

Analysts disagree on what accounts for this attrition. Do kids
willingly drift off to acting and music and Dungeons and Dragons?
Or do adults turn kids off with misplaced emphasis and boorish
behavior?

Rick Wolff, chairman of the Center for Sports Parenting at the
University of Rhode Island, believes that 11- and 12-year-olds go
elsewhere because parents and coaches aren't giving them the
sports experience they want. He cites the boom in extreme sports
as proof. "With mountain biking, snowboarding and skateboarding,
kids know parents aren't involved," he says. "And because parents
aren't involved, they know they can go do those things to enjoy
themselves."

Indeed, that Youth Sports Institute survey asked kids who
abandoned sports at 10 what might lure them back. The top three
answers were: "If practices were more fun," "If I could play
more" and "If coaches understood players better."

Which suggests once again that it's worth cocking an ear.

Lunch hour is over at Home Run Baseball Camp. The games of pickle
and tag-up have wound down, and coaches keep their distance as
two 10-year-olds choose sides at a diamond tucked into the far
end of the park. "They know exactly who the best are," John
McCarthy says. "They don't need coaches to tell them."

George Wojcik of McLean, Va., has been designated one captain,
and he picks his team from the gallery of unwhiskered faces
seated before him. "It takes me a long time to choose them,"
he'll say later. "I want to see who's making eye contact with me.
And I'm influenced by people I've already picked."

With its culture of on-field chatter and idle dugout banter,
baseball is well suited for the 10-year-old's fledgling
rhetorical confidence. Disconnected thoughts materialize and fill
out the natural pauses of the game, eventually organizing
themselves into a kind of conversation:

"In the hole--that's an odd term, don't you think?"

"You know what? If a glove is in our lost and found for more than
a week, we send it to the Dominican Republic."

After a teammate fouls off a handful of two-strike pitches: "Uh,
uh, uh, uh, stayin' alive, stayin' alive!"

At an opposing base runner, to the tune of We Will Rock You: "We
will, we will, pick you off! Pick you off!"

"I love infield chatter. The only problem is, you don't want to
say anything insulting like, 'We want a batter, not a broken
ladder.'"

"I know how it feels when everyone's saying, 'Ea-sy out, ea-sy
out' when you come up. But 'Move back,' that's O.K."

"Did you know that the winning design to replace the Twin Towers
is taller than the Petronas Towers?"

Somebody mentions the word cooties, and talk veers off in still
another direction.

"Girls are impossible to understand. If you ask a girl if she has
a crush on you, she'll always say no. Of course, boys do that
too."

"A girlfriend is when she likes you also. A crush is just secret."

"Girls are more important than baseball. I mean, the human
population depends on us."

"Yeah, if there'd just been Adam, he'd have had to have done it
with a snake. Can you imagine? Half baby, half snake?"

Can you imagine? If you were 10, you could.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK COLOR PHOTO: GARY BOGDON OPTIONS A 10-year-old's choices range from traditional to extreme. COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO GROWING UP With the 10-year-olds' impending physical maturation, sports will soon separate them, sometimes very quickly, according to size and skill level. COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS USHER/APIX (INSET) TWO COLOR PHOTOS: MANNY MILLAN (INSET) COLOR PHOTO: GARY BOGDON (INSET) COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS USHER/APIX CATCHING ON Two aspiring backstops drill for McCarthy at his Home Run camp.

"They aren't yet set in their ways, so they'll absorb a lot,"
John McCarthy says of 10-year-olds. "They're the most popular
group to coach."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)