Mini vs. Mature Pros: Physical Activity Across the Lifespan

1 12 2010

Ironically two New York Times articles showed up in my inbox today from different colleagues (thanks ED & ALN) about physical activity on different ends of the age spectrum. I find this ying-yang juxtaposition interesting.

pic by Ann Johansson for The New York Times

One is an article by sports journalist and author Mark Hyman titled “Sports Training Has Begun for Babies and Toddlers”. Hyman knows this topic well as he’s written a book called Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How it Harms our Kids, which I think is one of the best books about youth sport. I have many concerns about the products and programs Hyman details.

First, the target market is not the little ones, but their parents who will do anything to help their child get ahead, “keep up with the Joneses” and do right by their children.  I’d even go a step further and argue the target market is White, middle- to upper-class parents who are highly educated. Some call this demographic of parents “helicopter” parents. Someone told me recently that the youngest members of our society are now being called the Super Millennials and they will be more savvy, entitled, pampered and demanding than Millennials (also known as Gen Y, born between 1981-2000). One of the best books I’ve read about the Millennials is Bruce Tulgan’s “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y.” These sports training programs (Gymtrixx, Baby Goes Pro, athleticbaby, The Little Gym) for Super Millennials and their parents are a perfect example how sports can go wrong and why and how youth sports is becoming increasingly professionalized. I mean the little guys in Hyman’s story have on uniforms!

Kotelko picture by Patrik Giardino for The New York Times

The second article is by Bruce Grierson titled “The Incredible Flying Nonagenarian” about Olga Kotelko. Kotelko is a 91 year old Masters Track & Field athlete who started competing at age 77 and in that time holds 23 world records and has won over 600 gold medals. She is considered one of the world’s greatest athletes. WOW! In the NYT piece if you scroll down a bit, there is a video of her talking about competing and some footage of her in action. Amazing! Tangentially, last spring The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport invited Mariah Burton Nelson to give a Distinguished Lecture on Are Women Aging Successfully? New Thinking and Research about Gender and Physical Activity. You can watch the full length video here.

The reason why I put these two articles together is important. As I stated earlier, youth sport is increasingly professionalized and children are being “trained” at higher levels like “mini pros” at younger and younger ages. While a longitudinal study on the effects of early training, sport specialization, and  year round training without rest periods on children and youth has yet to be done, based on data that does exist in pediatric sports medicine, child development, sports psychology and sports sociology I feel I can safely claim that “sports training” for babies is NOT a good idea.

Here are a few reasons why–early sports training can lead to a host of negative and detrimental psychosocial and physical outcomes like burnout, anxiety and eating disorders due to pressure to perform, lack of lifelong enjoyment of physical activity, chronic and overuse injuries, and drop out of sport altogether. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate of kids being active and encouraging free play with children that develops motor and life skills and love of physical activity, but I think there is a fine line between this approach and some of the companies/products Hyman writes about.

Grieger in his piece about Kotelko nails the important link when he writes, “While most younger masters athletes were jocks in college if not before, many competitors in the higher brackets — say, older than age 70 — have come to the game late. They weren’t athletes earlier in life because of the demands of career and their own growing families. Only after their duties cleared could they tend that other fire.”

Olga Kotelko wasn’t enrolled in “baby sports training” but despite a lack of exposure to this ‘opportunity’, she is a professional athlete. More importantly I’d argue, is that she is an exemplary cautionary tale for eager parents bent on early sport specialization. In the big picture of why parents want their children to participate in sport, what is more important: a) nurturing a lifelong ability and love to participate in physical activity, or b) creating a mini pro that might burn out or not be able to compete in college (let alone later in life) due to over use injuries?

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A response to fans of the NYT “Women Who Hit Hard” piece

8 09 2010

In a past post I critiqued the NYT Magazine “Women Who Hit Hard” piece on female professional tennis players, and argued the expose was “soft core porn that had nothing to do with tennis”. While it is a strong statement, I stand by it, even when others disagree with me including Laura Pappano of Fairgamenews.com and a blogger on After Ellen. As always I welcome dialogue about this topic, and present here a critical perspective.

Some more specific reasons based on sport media scholarship to back up my claim are below which further expand why I think this piece is particularly problematic.

Image of Kim Clijsters in NYT Magazine p 30-31, August 29, 2010

1. In sport media, scholars have used the term “ambivalence” (Duncan & Hasbrook, 1988) to describe how female athletes are routinely marginalized in the media. Ambivalence is manifest when two statements, or a picture and the text, are contradictory and conflicting. One seems positive and flattering, and the other has subtle or overt negative, sexualizing or belittling tones.  The NYT piece is classic ambivalence. The article is quite positive and includes discussion of the depth of the women’s field, the increased global audience and prize money, and how much stronger and more fit female players are today. However, the accompanying slide show and particularly the video are what make the packaged piece ambivalent.

Sam Stosur

The 2 biggest pictures, both two-page  color spreads (dare I say centerfolds?), are the most sexualizing. First, the picture of Kim Clijsters (included here) in gold dust has nothing to do with tennis. You can’t tell she is even a tennis player from looking at the picture. Second, the picture of Sam Stosur (also included here) has her playing in a nude tube top, a piece of equipment she would NEVER play a match in.

In fact last night watching the US Open, Clijsters played Stosur in the fourth round in a great match.  So last night when I was watching the match, I thought to myself “Who is Stosur? I’ve never heard of her or seen her.” So I looked her up and found out she is an accomplished Aussie player. Is wasn’t until I sat down to write this blog and looked at the pics again that I put 2 and 2 together…the woman featured in this picture and the woman I watched last night were the same person! My point is, if we want to increase recognition of female athletes, this is NOT the way to do it. Emerging research indicates that sex does not sell women’s sport (I’ve written about this numerous times in the blog but to read one click here, or click on the “sexualization” blog tag)

The videos are also ambivalent. Yes they feature strong female athletes hitting the ball, which many think is really cool, but the slow motion, ballerina music, and the elongated shot time on the buttocks, crotch, and chest areas make it contradictory and sexualizing. Not to mention the make-up, hair down, and wearing of uniforms that most of the WTA players would dare not play.

2. Sport media scholars, study patterns of portrayals of female athletes, namely if the athlete is in uniform, on the court, and in action. The slides and videos do portray all three…kind of (I’ll expand on this point below).

3. Females athletes get so little coverage from sport and regular media, that when they are covered and it is in sexualized ways, it undermines their athletic achievements. In fact, in a recent report “Gender in Televised Sports” by two well-known sport media scholars, Professors Michael Messner and Cheryl Cooky, based on the data they illustrate that network sport coverage of female athletes is at an all time low–only 1.6% which was a decline from 6.3% in 2004!

Therefore, based on the data we rarely see females athletes, and when we do it often resembles soft core porn (or “muscle porn” as one person on the After Ellen blog dubbed it). Even though we disagree on this one, I agree with Laura Pappano’s statement below when she argues in her blog “ We have to find a way to consider athletic female bodies without automatically finding that because they are fit they are sex objects.”  Unfortunately because we see athletic female bodies in primarily sexualized ways, it will be hard to tease out bodies, fitness levels, and athleticism without objectifying those same bodies. The  NYT Magazine pieces only perpetuate the problem by again linking the female athleticism to sexualized bodies. What we have to get away from is the thinking pattern that female athletes and women’s sport is only interesting and marketable when their bodies are highlighted and sold. Highlight their athletic bodies in a natural setting–on the court (the real court, not a blacked out studio setting), in action (hitting real tennis balls not rolled in glitter), and in uniform (a real uniform in which certain body parts would not fly out or be exposed upon moving or hitting a real tennis ball).

To illustrate my point, imagine a similar NYT expose on ATP male professional players such as Nadal, Murray, Roddick, and Federer with their shirts off, chests oiled with gold glitter stuck to their muscles, glammed up, hair spiked, wearing super tight and short tennis shorts, lips slightly parted, hitting balls rolled in chalk or glitter to the same music. Wouldn’t that seem weird?

I invite further dialogue and counter arguments to this blog. What do you think?





The New York Times does soft core pornography feature of female professional tennis players

26 08 2010

Earlier I posted that today, August 26th, is Women’s Equality Day. No sooner did I post my blog and a colleague (thanks ED!) sent me something so distrubing I had to do another post today. What I will write about next is a perfect example of why Women’s Equality Day is important.

In my previous and many other posts, I argue and researchers have proven time and again, that female athletes are rarely seen in sport media and when they are, athletic competence is minimized (click here), and their bodies are sexualized as commodities to be consumed.

The most recent and blatantly sexist, disgusting and marginalizing example of sexualizing female athletes is a piece the New York Times just ran titled “Women Who Hit Hard.” The piece features professional female tennis players and I’m sure is meant to capture attention leading up to the 2010 US Open, and is replete with an article, slide show and slow motion videos of each player hitting tennis balls in sexy attire to eerie music. I’ve seen a LOT of examples of sport media that sexualizes female athletes, but this tops the list.

This is soft core pornography and has NOTHING to do with athleticism or tennis. It is pure exploitation of female athletes.





Are Female Athletes Becoming More Aggressive?

21 03 2010

With the start of the March Madness and stories of “aggressive female athletes” making national headlines (i.e., Elizabeth Lambert, Brittney Griner), a question I have heard asked and debated a lot lately is–“Are females athletes becoming more aggressive?”

I don’t have the answer. The best I can say is a cautious–“maybe?” I don’t think there are any data to prove or disprove this question, but the fact the incidents are caught on video and replayed makes it seem like it is more frequent.  I am hesitant to say overly aggressive acts of female athletes is on the rise at the risk of reifying outdated gendered stereotypes and double standards. The New York Times journalist Jere Longman, wrote a balanced piece which contained perspectives of some of the best critical thinkers and brightest sport sociologists. The story titled “Pushing Back Stereotypes” featured a particular quote from colleague and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota Mary Jo Kane, which I thought was spot on.  She stated,

“Only time will tell if this is an aberration, but what I think is a clear trend, as the stakes get higher in women’s sports, you see more pressure to win….This could be a natural progression to women entering into big-time college sports. You take the bad with the good; you take sold-out arenas with academic scandals. For us to think that women would enter the big time and have it be pristine and without controversy is naïve.”

What do you think about this issue? I wonder if the NCAA Women’s Tourney will conclude without any such incidents and ensuing media coverage.