Busy sports schedules — are they really for the children?

  • Article by: STEVE PURDUM
  • Updated: August 31, 2013 - 7:32 AM

It starts even before school does. But my experience running a summer camp shows that kids need more than one time of the year without pressures closing in.

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Mehki Lee, 5, left, Stephanie Ogle, 5, center, and Zaiyana Thompson, 5, do a motion break exercise with their class at Union Baptist-Harvey Johnson Head Start summer camp in Baltimore.

Photo: Jessica Kourkounis, New York Times

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Our family’s transition from summer camp season to the school year is always challenging. We try to cram as much family time into three weeks as we can.

But this year, even though school does not officially start until for our children until Tuesday, it felt in recent weeks as if summer were already over. I surprised myself for thinking it, and was shocked to say that we might as well have been in school.

Two full weeks before school began, our seventh-grade son had 7:30 a.m. football practice. Our daughter’s swim practice began at 8:30. My wife and I have been shuffling drop-offs and pickups in between trying to get our own work done and sneaking in some family time.

I don’t intend this epistle to be just another “woe is me” complaint. I imagine that all parents face similar schedules or more challenging ones. It’s a simple truth that we are all busy, and some time ago I stopped offering it as an excuse for being dilatory in returning e-mails.

Instead, I am reminded to begin with the question always asked by one of the best camp directors I ever met. She would always begin (or end) any discussion about summer camp with a simple interrogative: “What about the children?”

As I started to transfer the fall schedule to my calendar, I was startled to see that there are four away swim meets within the first five days of high school classes. This means that our daughter will not attend afternoon classes on three days of the first week of school.

I called the activities director to ask to whom I might share my concerns about this — her or my daughter’s coach — and I asked if she could offer an explanation on how this schedule could improve our daughter’s success as a swimmer, her well-being as a sophomore, and her academic endeavors.

After a long silence, the activities director replied that I was the first parent who had called to say the schedule was too tough. Really?

Lest this sound like a rant against competitive sports, I should add that both my wife and I swam competitively for years. We recognize the importance of sports as an outlet, and appreciate the opportunities for growth, not to mention the health benefits.

I don’t mean to disparage the tireless efforts of the coaches and activity leaders, but as our coaches and administrators plan these schedules, is it too much to ask that they begin with a simple question: What about the children?

Over the past few years, we’ve made a point to ask children who attend the camp we run what it is about the experience that they find so special. To a person, each of them has offered some form of the explanation that it allows them to be their best selves. What dawned on me as I plugged these swim meets into my calendar was that the system outside of camp must somehow prevent children from being their best selves! If true, that is a startling and sad conclusion.

As I think about it now, my own adolescent years were probably a cakewalk compared to what middle-school children face today. Social pressures, looming college admission, single-sport specialization, and parental and societal expectations for perfection at an imperfect age all add a totally different dimension for today’s children. In some respects, I believe the expectation has begun to challenge the human ability to meet it.

So as we clung to these last days of “vacation,” I wished I had the ability to extend this haven for our children. Alas, I know that summer must end and that with these difficult transitions come growth, but I also know that I can pack a bit of “camp” to take home. After all, nine months is a long time to wait for a place that allows one to be his or her best self.

In the meantime, look for us in the swim bleachers commiserating with other parents about the crazy schedules our children have — maybe even having some conversations about how to effect some change that begins with a simple question.

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Steve Purdum first came to Camp Mishawaka, near Grand Rapids, Minn., as a 9-year-old. He has owned the camp and served as its director since 1992.

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