“Sports are my life,” says 12-year-old Jesse. She plays basketball and soccer, does gymnastics and juggling practice, and plays weekend games in addition to homework and Girl Scouts. However, Jesse began needing a knee brace during games last season, and she also has been complaining about recurring headaches. Her parents wonder if she’s doing too much.
This scenario may sound familiar to you. I know my 11-year-old certainly wants to play several sports at once. And because we parents know that sports are good for girls, it’s easy to assume that more must be better. But that may not be true.
Her Whole Self
Christopher Andersonn, author of Will You Still Love Me If I Don’t Win?, says the key to a girl’s success — and to beating sports stress — on and off the field is to develop her whole self—including her talents, intellect, emotions, and spirituality. Most sports programs focus on developing physical skills. But when a girl’s whole self is nurtured, she gains balance in her life and feels less stressed. She may even perform better on the field.
Andersonn recalls 15-year-old Sue, who shocked her teammates and coaches when she admitted that she felt she always had to be the best. “I feel like everything is going to fall apart,” she said. “I’m going to fail somewhere.” Sue was an honor student, a musician, and a committed athlete. After she spoke about her feelings, her coach told her how much he cared about her, and noted what a good pianist she was. Until then, Sue didn’t realize that her coach had seen her play the piano. Then Sue’s teammates named things they admired about her—not just what she achieved but how she was. “Sue had been so focused on performing that she had no idea they had noticed her courage or her quiet support of their efforts,” says Andersonn. “Competition helps young athletes discover who they are, but it is only one aspect of a girl’s life.”
Has your daughter given up swimming to focus solely on basketball? If so, her health may be at risk. The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned about the health risks of overspecializing in a sport at a young age. The AAP suggests that girls participate in a variety of sports to ward off the overuse injuries, emotional distress, and eating disorders that can result from intense training. Urge your daughter to wait until she’s 12 or older to specialize in a single sport.
Recovering Her Balance
Is your daughter signaling sports stress? Weight loss, eating changes, chronic injuries or illnesses, falling grades, consistent fatigue, sleep disturbances, personality changes, and faked illnesses and injuries are some signs that a girl is experiencing sports overload.
Take a good look at her schedule. Does she have time for other interests, such as art, music, daydreaming, or reading? If you add up the hours she spends practicing, training, playing, and being transported to games, you may find yourself surprised by the total.
Your daughter’s attitude is an even more important indicator. Has she lost confidence in her abilities? Does she dread practices or complain that she has no time to relax? Finally, have you looked at your daughter, as I have, and seen a stressed girl who has lost the joy sports once gave her? (This often happens when winning becomes paramount to coaches and parents.) If so, you’ll need to help her cut back.
It also helps to look at the model you provide. How do you maintain balance in your own life? Even if we tell girls they don’t have to constantly win or achieve, we send the opposite message if we are driven by our jobs or always comparing ourselves with others.
Like you, I want my daughter to love the game, but I don’t want it to throw her life off-kilter. If I can teach her how to love herself for who she is rather than to focus solely on her achievements, she’ll be a champion in whatever field she chooses.
Susan Chappell is the former associate editor of Daughters.
For more information, check out the Women’s Sports Foundation.