We Tell Our Kids That Hard Work Always Pays Off. What Happens When They Fail Anyway?

Time

BY RACHEL SIMMONS MAY 23, 2019

Rachel Simmons is the director of the Phoebe Reese Lewis leadership program at Smith College and the author of Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Happy, Healthy & Fulfilled Lives.

A star athlete at the college where I work recently stopped by my office. After committing a few unforced errors during a weekend match, she was — several days later — riven by self-criticism and distracted on the field.

“I can’t stop beating myself up,” she told me. “I’m at peak fitness, and I practice hard. How is this happening?”

This student, like many I teach, believes she should be able to control the outcomes of her life by virtue of her hard work. It’s a mentality verging on invincibility: a sense that all-nighters in the library, a jam-packed calendar and hours on the field should get her exactly where she needs to go in life. Nothing can stop me but myself.

I study and write about resilience in young adults, and I’m noticing a troubling spike in students like this athlete. Their faith in their own sweat equity confers a kind of contingent confidence: when they win, they feel powerful and smart. Success confirms their mindset.

The problem comes when these students fail. When they fall short of what they imagine they should accomplish, they are crushed by self-blame. If my accomplishments are mine to control, they reason, my failures must be entirely my fault, too. Failing must mean I am incapable, and maybe will be forever.This makes it incredibly difficult for students to move on.

We talk often about young adults struggling with failure because their parents have protected them from discomfort. But there is something else at play here among the most privileged kids in particular: a message transmitted to them by doting parents who have falsely promised them that they can achieve anything if they are willing to work for it.

Psychologists studying students in high-achieving schools have sourced this phenomenon to a misapplication of “mindset” research, which has found that praising children for their effort will increase academic performance. Developed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her 2006 bestselling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, mindset education has infiltrated the classrooms around the world. But a 2018 meta-analysisfound that while so-called growth-mindset interventions, in which educators respond to their students’ challenges by praising effort (“You worked hard!”) over ability (“You’re really smart!”), may benefit high-risk or economically disadvantaged students, they do not necessarily help everyone.

One possible explanation comes from psychologists Suniya Luthar and Nina Kumar, who argued in a research paper last year that teens growing up in wealthy, pressure-cooker communities are actually hurt by the message that effort equals success. For them, Luthar and Kumar wrote, “it is not a lack of motivation and perseverance that is the big problem. Instead, it is unhealthy perfectionism, and difficulty with backing off when they should, when the high-octane drive for achievements is over the top.”

The humbling, brutal, messy reality of life is that you can do everything in your power — and still fail.

When parents demand excellence in their kids while still promising them that effort is king, they tell them, wrongly, that they should be able to rise above any obstacle. But research has found that young people who push themselves onward in the face of unattainable goals experience physical and emotional stress. In a 2007 study by psychologists Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch, the authors determined that adolescent girls who refused to give up impossible goals showed elevated levels of CRP, a protein that serves as a marker of systemic inflammation linked to diabetes, heart disease and other medical conditions. A 2012 study by Luthar and Samuel Barkin showed a correlation between the “perfectionist strivings” of affluent youth and their vulnerability to drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety and depression.

The humbling, brutal, messy reality of life is that you can do everything in your power — and still fail. This is knowledge that comes early to underrepresented minorities on campus, including first-generation students and students of color. Their experience of discrimination and inequality teaches them early on to brace for what is, for now, largely beyond their control to change.

Yet for many others, the quixotic belief that success is always within their grasp is a setup. University of Chicago Professor Lauren Erlant calls this “cruel optimism,” or when the pursuit of a goal actually harms you because it is largely unachievable. The college admissions game promises young adults a meritocracy that will reward their hard work with entrance to the ivory tower – yet admissions scandals and ultra-thin acceptance margins make such a promise impossible to keep.

Adults help students pursue success in healthier ways in part by redefining failure as a feature, not a bug, of learning. At Smith College, where I teach, the Narratives Project asks students to explore how setbacks and missteps made them stronger or more effective. “It can be instructive to observe your own response when things don’t go your way,” said director Dr. Jessica Bacal. “It might reinforce your passion for the work you’re doing or send you in a whole new direction – and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Luthar and Kumar urge parents and teachers to spend time helping students find purpose, or goals they both genuinely love to pursue and that make an impact on the world. Researchers have found that adolescents with purpose report greater life satisfaction, have a strong sense of identity and are more psychologically mature.

Instead of allowing our kids to beat themselves up when things don’t go their way, we might all pause to question a culture that has taught them that being anything less than overwhelmed is lazy, that how they perform for others is more important than what actually inspires them and that where they go to college matters more than the kind of person they are.

The point is not to give our kids a pass on working hard and doing their best. But fantasizing that they can control everything is not really resilience. We are harming our children by implying that they can bend life to their will, and as students walk across commencement stages this year, we would be wise to remind them that life has a way of sucker-punching us when we least expect it. It’s often the people who learn to say “stuff happens” who get up the fastest.

New Federal Exercise Recommendations

The New York Times

Very Brief Workouts Count Toward 150-Minute Goal, New Guidelines Say

New federal exercise recommendations include the first-ever federal activity parameters for 3-year-olds, as well as a few surprising omissions.

CreditJeenah Moon for The New York Times

As of Monday, the United States has new federal physical-activity guidelines. The new guidelines, which represent a scientific consensus about how much and what types of physical activities we should complete for good health, bear a strong resemblance to the existing, 10-year-old governmental recommendations. But they also feature some important updates and expansions, including the first-ever federal activity parameters for 3-year-olds, as well as a few surprising omissions.

And they offer a subtle, admonitory reminder that a substantial majority of us are not moving nearly as much as we should.

The idea that the government might suggest how much we need to exercise is relatively new. The first federal exercise recommendations were released in 2008, after several years of scientific background study.

 

During that time, an advisory board of researchers, most of them from academia, scoured the available scientific literature for clues about the relationships between physical activity and health and how much and what types of exercise seemed best able to lengthen people’s life spans and reduce their risks for disease.

Using that information, they assembled and presented a scientific report to the Department of Health and Human Services, which used it as the basis for the original 2008 guidelines.

Most of us probably know what those guidelines suggested.

In essence, they called for adults who are not disabled to complete at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking or other activities that raise people’s heart rates and breathing to the point that they can talk to a companion but cannot, should they be so inclined, sing.

The guidelines also noted that 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, such as jogging, would be equally effective but that the exercise, whatever its intensity, should take place in nonstop bouts of at least 10 minutes at a time and preferably every day.

Adults were urged, too, to do some type of strength training twice a week, while children older than 6 and teenagers were told to exercise moderately for at least 60 minutes a day.

 

That was 10 years ago. Since then, exercise scientists have published a mountain’s worth of new research about the health effects of physical activity — and of sitting — and of how much time we really need to spend in motion.

So two years ago, the Department of Health and Human Services convened a new panel of scientific advisers to sift through this research and provide updated exercise recommendations.

Earlier this year, that group delivered a 779-page scientific report to H.H.S., from which the new recommendations were devised.

To the surprise of some scientists and other observers, these guidelines, which were published on Monday in JAMA, are broadly the same as the previous set.

Again, they call for adults to complete at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activity every week, along with strength training twice a week.

They also suggest balance training for older people and, for the first time, urge kids between the ages of 3 and 5 to be active for at least three hours a day, an acknowledgment that even small children run the risk of being too sedentary these days.

 

The most substantive change in the new recommendations involves how long each bout of exercise should be. The new guidelines say they do not need to last for 10 minutes.

Any physical activity, no matter how brief, including walking up stairs or from the car to the office, provides health benefits, according to the new guidelines, and counts toward exercise goals.

Using these parameters, “it will be much easier” for people to accumulate the desired 150 weekly minutes of moderate activity, says Adm. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health at H.H.S., who oversaw the development of the formal guidelines.

This idea is captured in a new H.H.S. website cheerfully titled “Move Your Way” that summarizes the latest guidelines.

But despite this expansiveness, the 2018 recommendations do not cover some types or aspects of exercise, including high-intensity interval training. Although these brief, intense workouts are popular and widely studied, the guidelines’ writers felt that more research was needed about their safety and effects.

For the same reason, the guidelines do not set a target for how much — or little — time people should spend sitting or how many steps they should take each day, instead reiterating that the best goal is 150 minutes a week of activity.

Helpfully, the new guidelines do include some practical proposals for increasing exercise, including having health care workers ask people about their exercise habits during every appointment and employers promote physical activity at work.

But such efforts are voluntary, of course, and may be unable to overcome the greatest challenge facing the implementation of the new guidelines, which is us.

Despite 10 years of hearing that we should be moving more, few of us are.

Only about 20 percent of American adults meet the existing recommendations, and a third never work out at all, statistics show.

But Admiral Giroir says he believes that the new guidelines can and should inspire large numbers of people to get moving.

“They are so simple,” he says. “You can walk, dance, mow your lawn, park your car a little farther away. It all counts and could really make an impact on people’s health.”

New Study Finds Positive Correlation Between Team Sports and Mental Health

Women’s Sports Foundation

Researchers, including the team at the Women’s Sports Foundation, have long underscored the positive physical benefits that come with playing sports. A recent study published in the Lancet Psychiatry Journal advanced the conversation by further analyzing the effects of sports on mental health.

Reviewing data from more than 1.2 million responses to a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey, the researchers concluded that “physical exercise was significantly and meaningfully associated with self-reported mental health burden.” The report asserts that exercise can ease the burden of a variety of mental health issues, including mild depression, anxiety, panic attacks and stress.

To conduct the research, the authors of the cross-sectional study looked at data from CDC surveys given to adults 18 or over in 2011, 2013 and 2015. The study, which concerns survey responses derived from a one-month period, compares the number of self-reported bad mental health days between individuals who exercised and those who didn’t.

The conclusion? All exercise is good for mental health, but some forms are more beneficial than others.

The report indicates that “individuals who exercised had 1.49 (43.2%) fewer days of poor mental health in the past month than individuals who did not exercise but were otherwise matched for several physical and sociodemographic characteristics.”

“Even just walking just three times a week seems to give people better mental health than not exercising at all,” Adam Shekroud, an author of the study and Yale University psychiatry professor, told CNN. “I think from a public health perspective, it’s pretty important because it shows that we can have the potential for having a pretty big impact on mental health for a lot of people.”

Not all exercise is created equal when it comes to mental health though, the study found. Team sports had the largest association with a lower mental health burden, with a 22.3% reduction. Cycling and aerobic and gym exercises were next, at 21.6% and 20.1%, respectively. The best amount of time to exercise in terms of mental health is approximately 45 minutes three to four times per week, according to the report.

The study was published in August 2018, but has seen the most traction in the media in the last two weeks. In a climate where mental health is becoming increasingly destigmatized — particularly in athletics, where athletes have begun speaking out about their battles with mental health issues — the research is more relevant than ever.

Kids’ Brainpower Tied to Exercise, Sleep and Limited Screen Time

The New York Times

At least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, nine to 11 hours of sleep a night, and no more than two hours a day of recreational screen time were tied to higher mental test scores.

Researchers tied three behaviors to higher scores on tests of mental ability in children: at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, nine to 11 hours of sleep a night, and no more than two hours a day of recreational screen time.

The new study, in Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, included 4,524 children ages 8 to 11 who were assessed with six standard tests that measure language skills, memory, planning ability, and speed at completing mental tasks.

Compared with those who met none of the three behavioral criteria, those who met all of them scored about 4 percent higher on the combined tests. Meeting the requirements for both screen time and sleep was associated with a 5.1 percent increase in scores compared with those who met neither. Only 5 percent of the children met all three criteria, and nearly 30 percent met none.

“It may be that screen time is affecting sleep,” said the lead author, Jeremy J. Walsh, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. “Sleep is a critical behavior for shaping our brains. Kids need to be sleeping nine to 11 hours a night for their cognitive development to be optimal.”

Breast and Body Changes Are Driving Teen Girls Out of Sports

Photo

Harriet Lee-Merrion

Spring, finally!

So why aren’t more teenage girls out on the playing fields?

Research shows that girls tend to start dropping out of sports and skipping gym classes around the onset of puberty, a sharp decline not mirrored by adolescent boys.

A recent study in The Journal of Adolescent Health found a surprisingly common reason: developing breasts, and girls’ attitudes about them.

In a survey of 2,089 English schoolgirls ages 11 to 18, nearly three-quarters listed at least one breast-related concern regarding exercise and sports. They thought their breasts were too big or too small, too bouncy or bound too tightly in an ill-fitting bra. Beginning with feeling mortified about undressing in the locker room, they were also self-consciously reluctant to exercise and move with abandon.

Experts on adolescent health praised the study for identifying and quantifying an intuitive thought.

“We make assumptions about what we think we know, so it’s important to be able to say that as cup size increases, physical activity decreases for a lot of girls,” Dr. Sharonda Alston Taylor, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, who focuses on adolescent obesity.

The challenge is what to do about it.

After reading the study, some pediatricians and adolescent health specialists said they needed to do a better job informing girls about breast health and development. Almost 90 percent of the girls in the study said they wanted to know more about breasts in general, and nearly half wanted to know about sports bras and breasts specifically with respect to physical activity.

Joanna Scurr, the lead author of the study and a professor of biomechanics at the University of Portsmouth in England, said the breast itself had little internal support, so when a girl’s body moved, the breast moved independently, and the movement increased with breast size. In up to 72 percent of exercising women, she said, that movement was a cause of breast pain or discomfort.

Yet while sports and physical education programs frequently recommend protective gear for boys, like cups, athletic supporters and compression shorts, comparable lists for young women rarely include a mandatory or even recommended sports bra.

Only 10 percent of the girls surveyed said they always wore a sports bra during sports and exercise. More than half had never worn one.

Dr. Taylor said that lack of education about bra fitting and sizing was commonplace in her practice.

“The mom will say, ‘I don’t know what size she is,’ and the patient will say, ‘I just grab my sister’s or my mother’s bras to wear.’”

Using data from this study and others, the researchers from sports and exercise health departments at three British universities are trying to design school-based educational programs.

When researchers asked the girls how they would prefer to receive breast information — via a website, an app, a leaflet or a private session with a nurse — the overwhelming majority replied that they wanted a girls-only session with a female teacher.

At what age? “Most of them said 11,” Dr. Scurr said.

Andria Castillo, now 17 and a junior at Mather High School in Chicago, says she remembers that when she was around that age, she was painfully self-conscious about her breast size; she thought she was developing more slowly than everyone else.

“I felt boys and girls were making fun of me,” she said. “Even though no one called me out, I felt they were, behind my back. I was taking taekwondo, and I would look in the big mirror and try to find ways to cover myself up and hide. I asked my dad if I could stop going.”

She had a friend who had been active in sports. But in the sixth grade, the girl’s breasts developed rapidly. “She eventually stopped going to gym altogether,” Ms. Castillo said. “Instead, she just went to a classroom and did her homework.”

In time, Ms. Castillo turned her attitude around; she is now on her school’s varsity water polo and swim teams. She credits not only her mother, but also a Chicago-based project, Girls in the Game, which has body-positive, confidence-building programs, including single-sex athletics.

Some experts in female adolescent obesity and fitness suggested that young girls would be more comfortable in single-sex gym classes. But others said that option had its disadvantages, too.

Kimberly Burdette, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Loyola University Chicago who looks at the psychological factors that promote well-being and healthy weight in girls, says such separation might be helpful at a time when adolescent girls had a heightened awareness that others were looking at their bodies.

“It’s hard to be in the zone, focusing on athletic movement, on what your body can do, if you’re thinking about what others think your body looks like,” she said. “I like programming that is for girls only, where a girl can try a sport, regardless of her ability, without the male gaze.”

But Elizabeth A. Daniels, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, disagreed. “I’m not sure the concern or embarrassment is always just about boys,” she said, noting that girls can make derisive comments about one another. “So do we change the structure of the gym class or address respectful behavior?”

Benefits – Why Sports Participation for Girls and Women

Women’s Sports Foundation

 

Sport has been one of the most important socio-cultural learning experiences for boys and men for many years. Those same benefits should be afforded our daughters. It is important for all of us to know that:

  • High school girls who play sports are less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy; more likely to get better grades in school and more likely to graduate than girls who do not play sports.
  • Girls and women who play sports have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem and lower levels of depression.
  • Girls and women who play sports have a more positive body image and experience higher states of psychological well-being than girls and women who do not play sports.

Access this link for more information.

 

Photo

CreditGiselle Potter

My son, Galen, had been shooting hoops since he was 4, barely big enough to hold the ball. Now 11, he was 5-foot-6, a head taller than his mom, and light and agile on his feet. He could sink a basket from anywhere on the driveway, including a shot that passed between the branches of the maple tree on its way to the net. Basketball, I’d long believed, was his destiny.

Galen was a standout his first season at the YMCA, when he was 8. The next year we signed up for the club team, which turned our six-week rec league season into six months of intense tournament play. When it became clear that every kid on his team had been a YMCA standout (or had bypassed the Y league altogether), I arranged for him to take private lessons with the captain of the basketball team at the college where I teach.

He played in a 3-on-3 league over the summer and, at the conclusion of the club season the following spring, he began playing with an Amateur Athletic Union team, a national youth sports organization that, in addition to increasing the level of competition also expanded our travel radius to a tristate region. Three weekends a month, from October to July, we crisscrossed the Upper Midwest traveling to tournaments. All the parents complained about the endless driving, the lost weekends, the hours spent in the bleachers, yet all agreed the sacrifices were worth it. They were the cost of success.

I was no stranger to the world of hyper-intense sports. I’d grown up swimming and had spent my share of weekends camped out in stifling, chlorinated natatoriums. I was good enough to swim, on scholarship, at a large Division I university where I routinely lost to swimmers who’d go on to win Olympic medals. Twenty years later, I still swam every morning and I still believed in the power of sports — to focus both body and mind, release stress-busting endorphins, forge lifelong friendships. Even the defeats were useful. Anyone who’s ever loved a sport has learned the hard way that sometimes life isn’t fair.

But while I (most of the time) looked forward to swimming practices and meets, the chance to test my mettle against my peers, basketball tournaments made Galen nothing but miserable. He’d punish himself for days over missed shots and flubbed passes, even if his team prevailed in the end. Whenever a shot went in, he looked more relieved than happy, grateful not to have screwed up again. During the lulls between games, he sat by himself, brooding into his iPad. He didn’t want to talk to anyone, not even me.

For a while I thought I was the problem. I was failing my son by not loving his sport enough for the both of us — until the Saturday I took a seat on the bleachers beside another dad. He told me his older kids had also played competitive basketball; he’d been coming to tournaments for 15 years and figured he had at least a decade more to go. When I asked if his oldest daughter still played, he laughed and said, “By the end of high school she was so burned out she never wanted to see a basketball again. She won’t even watch it on TV with her brothers.”

“Was it worth it?” I asked.

“Builds character,” he said, half-grinning. I could tell he didn’t believe it, not all the way. I’d begun to wonder whether it was even true. Did youth sports really impart discipline and determination in ways that other activities — like learning Greek, say, or taking long hikes in the backcountry, or painting a fence — could not? How often does a childhood sacrificed on the altar of sports really confer advantages in adult life?

“Did she have fun at least?” I asked the dad.

“Some of the time,” he said. “But it wasn’t really about fun.”

To me, it should be, and John Engh, executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, agreed. “Kids need diversity both socially and athletically,” he said in an email. “When their main outlet for both becomes the same activity, then a bad (or even a mediocre) experience can leave them disliking not only their sport but also physical activity of any kind.”

Driving home from Galen’s final tournament, after nearly a year of constant practices and games, I made a radical proposal. “Maybe it’s time to quit,” I said. “Basketball isn’t making you happy.”

I’d been afraid to utter the Q-word for months. Saying it felt a little like suggesting we rob a bank.

“If I quit basketball, what sport do I play?” Galen asked.

“How about NO sport,” I said. “At least not for a while. You can play basketball with friends all you want, but you don’t have to play on a team. We can spend our weekends camping and backpacking, skiing in the winter. You know, things we actually enjoy.”

He hesitated. “Every kid at my school plays something.”

If he didn’t have a sport, he continued, “I’ll be a nobody.”

“I’m only trying to consider how our light is spent,” I told Galen.

He looked at me. “What’s that mean? Is that poetry?”

“It’s John Milton,” I said. I’d taught a few of his sonnets the previous spring. “It’s about accepting who we are.”

Galen rolled his eyes. “I just want to go home.”

Over the weeks and months that followed, the idea grew on Galen. Freed from practice, he took to riding his bike and skateboard for hours, turning into the driveway as the last of the dusklight drained from the sky, his cheeks ruddy and his shoulders relaxed. He spent far more time outside without basketball weighing on his mind and schedule. He didn’t become a nobody or stop being an athlete.

Instead, both his definition of sports and his circle of friendships expanded. In the fall, he signed up for a kayaking class and went out for the junior high cross-country team, a far more reasonable eight-week season. When the snow fell, he joined a skiing club. Each new activity introduced him to new friends, and in some cases gave him a chance to hang out with his old basketball teammates without the pressure to win a game. This summer he’s heading to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota for a weeklong canoeing trip.

Now that the weather’s warm, Galen’s back to shooting hoops in the driveway. More than once, I’ve looked out the kitchen window and spotted him dribbling the ball between his legs while talking trash to an imaginary adversary. He fakes right, spins to the left, stops on a dime, swishes a jumper from behind the garbage cans. When he exultantly raises his arms above his head, full of joy and confidence, I know the decision to quit was the right one. A slam dunk.

Why 70 percent of kids quit sports by age 13

June 1, 2016

According to a poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports, around 70 percent of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 because “it’s just not fun anymore.” I have three kids, all of whom play sports, and my oldest is about to turn 13. I may not have understood why this was happening a few years ago, but sadly, knowing what I know now, the mass exodus of 13-year-olds from organized sports makes perfect sense to me.

“It’s not fun anymore” isn’t the problem; it’s a consequence of a number of cultural, economic and systemic issues that result in our kids turning away from organized sports at a time when they could benefit from them the most. Playing sports offers everything from physical activity, experiencing success and bouncing back from failure to taking calculated risks and dealing with the consequences to working as a team and getting away from the ubiquitous presence of screens. Our middle-schoolers need sports now more than ever.

Here are the reasons I think it’s become less fun for kids to play sports, and why they are taking an early retirement.

It’s not fun anymore because it’s not designed to be. As children get closer to high school, the system of youth sports is geared toward meeting the needs of more competitive players, and the expectations placed on them increase. Often the mentality is that most of the kids who quit at 13 are the ones who wouldn’t make a varsity team in high school anyway. Those who stick around find that being on a team means a greater commitment of time and effort. It also means being surrounded by people who care very much about the outcome. This, consequently, brings with it the potential for experiencing disappointment or being the cause of it. There is nothing wrong with any of that, and it can teach incredibly important lessons about hard work, resiliency and character — but it’s not for everyone.

Our culture no longer supports older kids playing for the fun of it. The pressure to raise “successful” kids means that we expect them to be the best. If they’re not, they’re encouraged to cut their losses and focus on areas where they can excel. We see it in middle school orchestra, where a kid who doesn’t make first chair wonders if it’s worth continuing to play. If a seventh-grader doesn’t make a select team for soccer, she starts to wonder if maybe it’s time to quit altogether, thinking that if she’s not hitting that highest level, it might not be worth doing?

For the small minority of kids who are playing a sport at an elite level and loving it, the idea of quitting in middle school is probably unthinkable. But for everyone else, there are fewer opportunities to play, a more competitive and less developmental environment in which to participate, and lots of other things competing for their time after school.

There is a clear push for kids to specialize and achieve at the highest possible level. Increasingly kids are pressured to “find their passion” and excel in that area (be it music, arts, sports, etc.). There are certainly kids for whom this is true, but it is not the norm (despite the expectations of college admissions officers). For many, there’s a strong argument against this trend, because the message is essentially to pick one thing and specialize in it (to the exclusion of pursuing other interests). For young athletes, early specialization can be harmful in terms of long-term injuries, and it does little to increase one’s overall the chances of later collegiate or professional success.

Perhaps more importantly, the underlying message that “I have to be the best or I’ve failed” is deeply harmful to kids. This is absolutely mirrored and reinforced in school, where the environment is increasingly test and outcome-driven. Sports could be pivotal in teaching kids how to fail and recover, something that educators and parents see as being desperately needed. In privileged Washington, D.C., suburbs such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties (and in others like them, across the country), teenagers find themselves stressed to the point of developing anxiety and depression. We see unhealthy coping behaviors and increased rates of self-harm and suicide. This is not a sports problem, it’s a culture problem.

There is a cost to be competitive and not everyone is willing or able to pay it. For kids, playing at a more competitive level can mean having to prioritize their commitments and interests and work tirelessly. It also means they have to be able to deal with the pressure of participating at a higher level. These can be positive things — provided the environment they’re playing in is a healthy one. But there are other factors that contribute to a young athlete’s ability not just to compete, but to be seen as competitive, and I question how healthy these things are for families.

Training year-round, expensive equipment, individual coaching, camps, tournaments and participation on travel and select teams in many places are no longer really considered “optional” for success in youth sports, at least not heading into high school. The investment of time and money that these things require is substantial. That contributes to an environment where kids of lower-income or single-parent families are simply shut out of the game.

And, of course, it’s just the age. At 13, kids generally find themselves with more (and more challenging) school work. Most are also encouraged to start choosing what interests them the most and what they’re best at. There’s no longer time for them to do as much they did in elementary school.

Some of the major social and emotional changes that 13-year-olds experience also predispose them to making decisions such as quitting sports, especially as that environment becomes more competitive. The CDC describes it on its developmental milestones page as a “focus on themselves… going back and forth between high expectations and lack of confidence.” Kids become more focused on — and influenced by — their friends, many of whom are also walking away from organized youth sports.

Any discussion about being 13 also needs to include social media, smartphones and the Internet. According to the Pew Center’s Internet Research Study, most U.S. kids receive their first cellphone or wireless device by the age of 12. Between the ages of 13 and 17, 92 percent of teens report being online every day, and 24 percent are online “almost constantly.” As kids become teenagers, their priorities change. How they socialize, study and spend their time changes with them.

These things collectively represent a perfect storm. There are no easy answers here. The system of youth sports is set up to cater to more elite players as they approach high school, leaving average kids with fewer opportunities. Our culture encourages specialization and achievement, which actively discourages kids from trying new things or just playing for fun. And all of this converges at a time when they’re going through major physical, emotional and social changes as well as facing pressure to pare down their interests and focus on school.

So why do 70 percent of kids quit organized sports at 13 and what can we do about it? I would argue that most kids leave because we haven’t given them a way to stay. And perhaps more importantly, until we dismantle the parenting culture that emphasizes achievement and success over healthy, happy kids, we don’t stand a chance of solving this problem.

Julianna W. Miner has three kids and lives in suburban Washington, D.C. She teaches Public Health at a college she couldn’t have gotten into because she made bad choices in high school. She writes the award-winning humor blog  Rants from Mommyland and spends too much time on the Facebook.

Researchers Draw Link Between Physical Activity, Academic Success

EdWeek

Beyond the fitness-related benefits, physical activity can also contribute to students’ academic success, suggests a consensus statement published online Monday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

A group of 24 international experts gathered in Denmark back in April “to reach evidence-based consensus about physical activity and youth.” They wound up with a 21-point list divided into four themes: fitness and health; cognitive functioning; engagement, motivation, psychological well-being; and inclusion and physical activity implementation strategies.

When it comes to academics, the researchers concluded that “physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness are beneficial to brain structure, brain function, and cognition in children and youth.” Additionally, they suggested “a single session of moderate physical activity has an acute benefit to brain function, cognition, and scholastic performance in children and youth.”

There’s been plenty of research in recent years to back up these assertions. In September 2014, a study published in the journal PLOS ONE found physical activity during recess in 1st grade to be directly correlated to reading fluency in 1st and 2nd grades. A study published in the same journalthe previous September suggested higher levels of aerobic fitness could bolster a child’s ability to learn and remember information. In March 2014, a study found Kansas elementary and middle school students who met certain physical-fitness benchmarks to be considerably more likely to exceed reading and math performance standards.

Accordingly, the Copenhagen Consensus experts concluded that time taken away from academic lessons in favor of physical activity won’t “come at the cost of scholastic performance.” Research suggests there’s a tangible academic benefit to giving students a physical-activity break between hours of lessons, even if it comes at the expense of a few extra minutes of classroom time.

The Copenhagen researchers also found physical activity to have “the potential to positively influence psychological and social outcomes” for students, “such as self-esteem and relationships with peers, parents, and coaches.” They suggested “close relationships and peer group acceptance in physical activity are positively related to perceived competence, intrinsic motivation and participation behavior” in children. The experts particularly endorsed physical-activity programs with “an intentional curriculum and deliberate training,” as they are “effective at promoting life skills and core values” such as respect, social responsibility and self-regulation.

The consensus statement authors highlighted schools as a major asset when it comes to physical activity, as socioeconomic factors may limit some children’s activity opportunities outside of school hours. Having bike lanes, parks, and playgrounds at schools “are both effective strategies for providing equitable access to, and enhancing physical activity for, children and youth,” they concluded.

Breast and Body Changes Are Driving Teen Girls Out of Sports

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CreditHarriet Lee-Merrion

So why aren’t more teenage girls out on the playing fields?

Research shows that girls tend to start dropping out of sports and skipping gym classes around the onset of puberty, a sharp decline not mirrored by adolescent boys.

A recent study in The Journal of Adolescent Health found a surprisingly common reason: developing breasts, and girls’ attitudes about them.

In a survey of 2,089 English schoolgirls ages 11 to 18, nearly three-quarters listed at least one breast-related concern regarding exercise and sports. They thought their breasts were too big or too small, too bouncy or bound too tightly in an ill-fitting bra. Beginning with feeling mortified about undressing in the locker room, they were also self-consciously reluctant to exercise and move with abandon.

Experts on adolescent health praised the study for identifying and quantifying an intuitive thought.

“We make assumptions about what we think we know, so it’s important to be able to say that as cup size increases, physical activity decreases for a lot of girls,” Dr. Sharonda Alston Taylor, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, who focuses on adolescent obesity.

The challenge is what to do about it.

After reading the study, some pediatricians and adolescent health specialists said they needed to do a better job informing girls about breast health and development. Almost 90 percent of the girls in the study said they wanted to know more about breasts in general, and nearly half wanted to know about sports bras and breasts specifically with respect to physical activity.

Joanna Scurr, the lead author of the study and a professor of biomechanics at the University of Portsmouth in England, said the breast itself had little internal support, so when a girl’s body moved, the breast moved independently, and the movement increased with breast size. In up to 72 percent of exercising women, she said, that movement was a cause of breast pain or discomfort.

Yet while sports and physical education programs frequently recommend protective gear for boys, like cups, athletic supporters and compression shorts, comparable lists for young women rarely include a mandatory or even recommended sports bra.

Only 10 percent of the girls surveyed said they always wore a sports bra during sports and exercise. More than half had never worn one.

Dr. Taylor said that lack of education about bra fitting and sizing was commonplace in her practice.

“The mom will say, ‘I don’t know what size she is,’ and the patient will say, ‘I just grab my sister’s or my mother’s bras to wear.’”

Using data from this study and others, the researchers from sports and exercise health departments at three British universities are trying to design school-based educational programs.

When researchers asked the girls how they would prefer to receive breast information — via a website, an app, a leaflet or a private session with a nurse — the overwhelming majority replied that they wanted a girls-only session with a female teacher.

At what age? “Most of them said 11,” Dr. Scurr said.

Andria Castillo, now 17 and a junior at Mather High School in Chicago, says she remembers that when she was around that age, she was painfully self-conscious about her breast size; she thought she was developing more slowly than everyone else.

“I felt boys and girls were making fun of me,” she said. “Even though no one called me out, I felt they were, behind my back. I was taking taekwondo, and I would look in the big mirror and try to find ways to cover myself up and hide. I asked my dad if I could stop going.”

She had a friend who had been active in sports. But in the sixth grade, the girl’s breasts developed rapidly. “She eventually stopped going to gym altogether,” Ms. Castillo said. “Instead, she just went to a classroom and did her homework.”

In time, Ms. Castillo turned her attitude around; she is now on her school’s varsity water polo and swim teams. She credits not only her mother, but also a Chicago-based project, Girls in the Game, which has body-positive, confidence-building programs, including single-sex athletics.

Some experts in female adolescent obesity and fitness suggested that young girls would be more comfortable in single-sex gym classes. But others said that option had its disadvantages, too.

Kimberly Burdette, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Loyola University Chicago who looks at the psychological factors that promote well-being and healthy weight in girls, says such separation might be helpful at a time when adolescent girls had a heightened awareness that others were looking at their bodies.

“It’s hard to be in the zone, focusing on athletic movement, on what your body can do, if you’re thinking about what others think your body looks like,” she said. “I like programming that is for girls only, where a girl can try a sport, regardless of her ability, without the male gaze.”

But Elizabeth A. Daniels, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, disagreed. “I’m not sure the concern or embarrassment is always just about boys,” she said, noting that girls can make derisive comments about one another. “So do we change the structure of the gym class or address respectful behavior?”