The year is 1932. Americans watch in apprehension as their beloved Babe Ruth takes to the batting box of the World Series, representing the iconic New York Yankees. Having struck out twice, Ruth prepares himself for his final attempt at victory. What happens next will have sports fans debating for decades. It looks as though Ruth, assuredly, points to an area behind the flagpole indicating that, with his next swing, he will score a homerun. Yankees fans clench their teeth in trepidation as he takes position. The strike of the ball on the bat rings out across the stadium and Americans cheer as Ruth races to home base, his feet moving swiftly across the dirt, ultimately scoring a home run. The stands roar with enthusiasm and, for a moment, all is right with the world.
This scene is a celebrated moment that every American knows well and that children have emulated in their very own gardens for decades. It is spectacular moments, such as this, that give children the inspiration to conquer the playing field themselves, ultimately uncovering the wonderful world of sport.
Few things can compare to the feeling of the warm summer’s sun on your skin, the faint sound of a whistle blowing from a distance, or the redeeming feeling of loosing oneself in the steadfast beat of your own feet on the turf.
However, iconic moments and sensations such as these are often substituted with pixelated fields and players, requiring nothing more than nimble thumbs and weary, dead-set eyes. Children spend their days eagerly clicking away, all for the comfortable satisfaction of knowing they’ve made it to the next level. But as the day comes to an end and the screen fades, there is little to be said for small, video game victories.
Unfortunately, those who are courageous enough to brave the real world of sport are often met with angry, distraught coaches, dissatisfied parents, and all-round unpleasant experiences. When did we let sport become a ‘win at all costs’ display of fraudulence and disrespect? We have lost touch with a vital aspect of our culture, an aspect that teaches respect, dignity, perseverance and dedication. We have lost touch with sport.
It is becoming more and more infrequent for children to pursue sport and physical activity with the forever-escalading field of technological and Internet gaming. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) reports that fewer than twenty-seven percent of American youths aged six to twelve were participating in organized or unstructured sports in the year 2015. That is nearly a four percent drop from a previous survey conducted in 2008. Additionally, the rate among children aged thirteen to seventeen decreased from 42.7% to 39.3% from 2008 to 2015. So, why does this matter? Why should the steady decline in our youth’s participation in sport and physical activities concern us?
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that children require sixty minutes of physical activity each day. These activities should include a variety of aerobic, bone strengthening and muscle strengthening exercises. Yet recess times in both the United States and in the United Kingdom average less than thirty minutes a day, and rarely meet these exercise requirements.
In short, extracurricular sport is a necessity to our youth’s health. It is vital to assist our youths, from an early age, in making the necessary steps to sustaining a healthy and happy life. But how do we encourage our children to pursue sport when their experiences of sport are so often tainted by the unrealistic expectations inflicted on them by coaches and parents? To change the experience of sport, we must learn to view sport as a way to develop our youths holistically, encouraging the values on which sports and sportsmanship were originally founded.
The Aspen Institute’s ‘Project Play’ states “Only 1 in 5 youth coaches is trained in effective motivational technique with children.” The True Athlete Project aims to improve these figures through changing the way coaches are trained to instruct and inspire our children. Mindfulness, mentoring and mental skills training are the cornerstones of our approach.
In the year 2012, more than one third of children living in the United States were found to be obese or overweight. Moreover, childhood obesity is proven to put children at risk for heart disease, diabetes, bone and joint complications, and psychological problems (CDC.gov). Working as a Registered Nurse in an urban hospital, I have witnessed many accounts of progressively deteriorating health related to a lack of proper physical education. Nearly every patient treated has fallen victim to hypertension, diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidemia or severe anxiety, often leading to further co-morbidities. We have learned to accept these diagnoses as they have become common given the culture we live in today.
Additionally, exercise and healthy eating habits are often learned at an early age, and coaches frequently miss the profound opportunity to not only inspire children to pursue sport and physical activity, but to teach them how to take their health to a holistic level, practicing not just good physical health, but good mental health as well. I have often wondered what the world would look like if coaches seized this opportunity.
Given the incidence of mental and physical illness in the western world, sport and physical activity seems a logical solution to these issues we face and coaches have an incredible opportunity to make an everlasting impact. The True Athlete Project aims to train coaches to motivate children to pursue sport and physical activity and to live mindful, holistic lives. Through this approach, we hope to make the world a happier and healthier place. Imagine a world with scarcer devastation in relation to preventable morbidities and disease. Imagine a world where we are united for the same cause, one that promotes health and wellbeing, in every sense of the word. Imagine a world united by sport.
By Cloie Hamilton, R.N.
WITH KIDS FACING INCREASING PRESSURE TO COMPETE, IT'S IMPORTANT TO RECONNECT WITH WHAT MAKES SPORT TRULY GREAT
Charlie’s father brought him to my office when it was clear he was no longer enjoying swimming. In the past, Charlie had generally been enthusiastic about his training and races, but there had been a notable and puzzling dip in his motivation and performance over the past few weeks. Talking to Charlie, it became clear that this dip coincided with the start of his school’s swim season. He swims for a top area club year-round and already had to miss a handful of school practices to meet obligations for his club team, something his school coach frowned upon.
Charlie is a standout backstroker in an urban area rich with swimming talent, making him a coveted asset for every team he swims for. Wanting to live up to the expectations set for him, his daily schedule looked like this: wake up at 4am for club swim practice, attend a full day of school, go to school swim practice in the afternoon, do homework until around 10pm, then go to bed to start the cycle over. This schedule was hard enough to sustain, but what pushed him to the breaking point was an altercation with his school swim coach during which the coach berated him for missing the occasional practice and not being “committed enough” to his swimming.
The joy that Charlie had once felt for his sport was fading, replaced by stress and a sense of never being enough. He had become fearful and tentative in the water and a beloved activity had become a thankless job to him. Now, Charlie is a pseudonym, and a few other details in this anecdote have been modified slightly to protect his privacy. But, one unaltered fact, which frankly is still stunning to me given what he was reporting, is that Charlie was only 12 years old at the time of our meeting, still in his first year of middle school.
How has it come to this? That sport, a domain that is so crucial to our socialization in Western culture, can become a if not the primary stressor to a kid like Charlie. The pressures to specialize and compete - i.e., “get serious” - about sport are being applied earlier and earlier and the greatest victim in that push also happens to be a key to both optimal experience and peak performance: fun. The importance of fun to sport has been captured in many concepts within sport science, perhaps none more influential than Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model, one of the key ingredients of this idyllic state that many now equate to being in “the zone” is what he calls autotelic experience, which basically means doing something purely for the joy of the activity itself (as opposed to for some ulterior benefit).
When asked to comment on why autotelic experience can be so elusive as we grow up, Csikszentmihalyi has maintained that adults tend to view this type of motive for an activity as childish and therefore something to be ashamed of - see Daniel Pink’s fascinating 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for a more detailed description of this conversation. This idea is profoundly intriguing to me and perhaps exposes one of the major deficits that exists in our culture of sport today. As athletes get older and more “serious” about their sports, we are essentially snuffing out one of the qualities that both most benefits sport performance and provides one of the greatest benefits of sport.
I’m a clinical sport psychologist, and I’ll admit that I had fantasies of working with high-profile professional athletes when I first opened my practice in 2008. But, something totally unexpected and wonderful happened as I started branding myself in my community - many of the people who sought out my services weren’t the pros, but were adolescent and young-adult athletes who seemed to be dealing with some variant of the same issues as Charlie. The more I’ve learned about this trend through my clinical work and my research, the more passionate I’ve become about a new cause: promoting change in the culture of sport to strengthen and preserve what makes it such a powerful force of good for kids - intrinsic motivation, joy, learning, friendship; in short, autotelic experience.
When I was in graduate school, I co-developed a program of research around bringing mindfulness to sport. For those who don’t know, there is a “mindful revolution” happening throughout psychology and society at large, and that movement is now beginning to spread into sport. Mindfulness is all about how we pay attention and operate within the moments of our lives, including the chaotic, high-pressure moments of athletic competition. This program grew into a dissertation study on an intervention my research team created, mindful sport performance enhancement (MSPE), and MSPE has now become one of the primary mindfulness-based mental training programs available for athletes and coaches (I’d like to shamelessly plug the book we’re writing on MSPE to be published by the American Psychological Association and released in 2017).
One of our earliest studies of MSPE illustrated conceptual and empirical links between mindfulness and flow, and a number of other studies in the last decade have similarly demonstrated the connection. Thus, a major focus of my work has become exploring how MSPE might help facilitate this badly needed paradigm shift in sport, away from the extrinsic pressures that can be so stressful and damaging to athletes. While much of our research to date has focused on college and adult athletes, a recent pilot study I conducted with high school athletes showed incredibly promising results, with a very modestly sized sample which endured a variety of scheduling disruptions due to inclement weather nonetheless experiencing highly significant increases in dimensions of mindfulness and flow, and decreases in emotion-regulation difficulties.
Furthering this exploration of how mindfulness and MSPE can enhance youth and scholastic athletes’ athletic performance and (both on- and off-the-field) experiences has led to an exciting collaboration with Sam Parfitt’s The True Athlete Project (TAP). Sam has already brought MSPE to a group of elementary school athletes with thrilling results. Among the comments made by the kids after MSPE were: “I feel like a weight lifted from my head and I’m free;” “I still get nervous at swim meets, but now I don’t let it get the better of me;” and “I feel like I’ve transformed, this is going to help me so much.” The plan is to continue making the program available in various ways through the organization. TAP’s mission to make the culture of sport more healthy by promoting innovative mind, body, and spirit approaches for athletes and coaches is a crucial one and one that I’m personally honored to be a part of. My sincere hope is that others will join the movement and help make experiences like Charlie’s a relic of the past.
For more about MSPE and Dr. Keith Kaufman, please visit his websites: www.KeithKaufmanPhD.com and www.MindfulCompetitor.com.