These days, seeing a shrink seems to be a trendy thing to do. At least, that’s how the media portrays the type of counseling that many Americans seek. More and more, kids are getting in on the action, especially child athletes. As children are increasingly encouraged to focus on only one sport, the pressure they feel to preform rises exponentially. Enter the sport psychologist.
Despite the fact that therapy is often seen as a healthy release, there is question as to whether it is necessary for child athletes who may be as young as seven and eight. Is it just a trend that parents are buying into, or do they truly believe that their child will benefit in the long run? A recent New York Times article, which is excerpted below, examines the relatively new phenomena of sports psychology for children.
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A competitive gymnast for most of her life, Heather Benjamin has traveled the country and won her share of awards. But last year she developed a fear of jumping from one bar to the other in the uneven bars event. So she did something familiar to professional sports stars — she talked to a sports psychologist.
“It made such a difference,” she said. “We worked through the fear, and that has let me relax. I would tell anyone that it’s worth it.” Heather was 9 at the time. For $225 a session, Alan Goldberg counseled her during 12 hourlong telephone conversations across five months. At recent national and Junior Olympic competitions, Heather surpassed her previous scores by three ability levels.
“It was a phobia,” said her mother, Donna Benjamin, who had decided Heather would benefit from the counseling. “A mental block that hindered her ability to compete.”
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The idea that mental coaching can help the youngest athletes has pervaded the upper reaches of the country’s zealous youth sports culture. In the pursuit of college scholarships and top spots on premier travel clubs, the families of young athletes routinely pay for personal strength coaches, conditioning coaches, specialized skill coaches, nutritionists and recruiting consultants. Now, the personal sports psychologist has joined the entourage.
“Parents tell me that they’ve put so much money into their child’s athletic development that they’re not going to leave any stone unturned if it might help them achieve,” said Marty Ewing, a former president of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology.
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“On the one hand, it’s foolish not to teach kids mental skills they may need,” said Daniel Gould, a sports psychologist who is also the director of Michigan State’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. “On the flip side, is it just contributing to the professionalism of childhood? Because these kids aren’t playing for the New York Yankees. And worse, I worry that some parents are doing it just because their neighbor did it for his kid.”
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Several sports psychologists said their primary work with young athletes was counseling the parents or coaches.
“The root of the problem is often the triangle of parent, coach and athlete and the conflicts created,” said Jay Granat, a New Jersey sports psychologist. “The parents have the right intentions. They want their kid to be the next Tiger Woods. But those fantasies are getting in the way.”
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The trend toward specializing in one sport at an early age has also led more young athletes to seek counseling.
“If an 11-year-old is told that focusing on one sport is all that matters, it obviously puts a lot of pressure on every outcome in that sport,” Dr. Ewing said. “We are asking that 11-year-old to play a game at a level that is disproportionate to his or her cognitive development. That’s development you can’t rush, but people try.”
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Sports psychology is a thriving business, and not only for children. Elite professional athletes have consulted with psychologists since the 1980s, and now top college players and recreational weekend warriors also want to fine-tune their mental muscles and pay $125 to $250 an hour to do so.
What sports psychologists say they deal with most is performance problems, usually linked to pregame nerves or postgame frustrations.
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Sarah Mott, a 15-year-old swimmer, said she was filled with negative thoughts before races. “Dr. Goldberg changed the way I thought about my races,” Mott said. “He gave me techniques to relax and focus that I worked on for weeks in practices. My results got a lot better, but the best thing is I love swimming again.” The lessons, sports psychologists say, are useful beyond sports.
“Learning to concentrate, to relax and have confidence, to deal with frustration, to set goals and stay focused on the task at hand, these are life skills,” Joel Fish, the director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia, said. “They will help you take an English test, not just get a hit in a baseball game.”
But Dr. Fish, like many of his colleagues, said some parents seemed to be having their athletic children see the sports psychologist too soon.
“They’re coming in at 7, 8 and 9 years old, and usually I say: ‘Just give it some time. This will work itself out,’ ” he said. “Sometimes I tell them it’s O.K. to take a season off.”
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To read this article in its entirety, click here. For other Situationist posts on child development issues, check out these: “Only Child Syndrome or Advantage?,” “Role-Playing Helps Adolescent Emotional Learning,” “Jock or Nerd?: Where Do You Sit at the Dinner Table?,” “Biology and Environment Affect Childhood Behavioral Development,” or “Growing up in a Sexualizing Situation.” To review numerous “Situationist Sports” posts, click here. Below you can find a seven-minute ESPN interview of sports psychologist Rob Bell from University of Tennessee.