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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Aristotle, Virtue & the Youth Sports-Injury Epidemic

The virtues are making something of a comeback. Contemporary, moral philosophers such as Alasdair Macintyre ("After Virtue") and Michael Sandel ("Justice") are extolling well, their, virtue.  What is a virtue? A virtue is a trait or quality that promotes individual and/or collective well being.  According to Aristotle, a virtue lies somewhere between two extremes (what he called the golden mean).  For example, the virtue of courage lies somewhere between cowardice and heedlessness, and the virtue of charity lies somewhere between miserliness and extravagance. Moreover, the virtues are something we acquire through instruction and practice (i.e., they are not innate), which means that in order to become virtuous we need to schooled by someone who possesses the virtues we seek to acquire.

One could make a similar argument concerning the virtue of athletic excellence. One may have the requisite abilities to throw a football 70 yards or bend a soccer ball like Beckam, but without practice one doesn't acquire the skills needed to take advantage of such abilities.  However, athletic excellence, just like any other virtue, can only be acquired by avoiding the extremes of indifference and obsession.  It is easy to see why indifference does not lead one to become a great athlete, but it may be less intuitive as to why obsessiveness about a particular sport can be a bad thing.  The short answer is that too much practice incurs what economists call diminishing marginal returns. Medical evidence suggests that our bodies simply can't take it. They break down. What they need is a rest, but we don't give it to them.

This fact was recently driven home when talking with an acquaintance who was one of the top milers in Santa Clara County when he was a Freshman.  Like many runners he ran cross-country in the Fall and track in the Spring.  In the Winter he wanted to play another sport (basketball), but his track coach wouldn't let him. His coach wanted him to train year round, so he did.  Consequently, he ran between 13-15 miles a day, 365 days a year.  What happened?  Well, he never ran a faster time in the mile than he did as a Freshman. All that extra training didn't buy him another second.  What's worse, his legs eventually gave out, and he couldn't run anymore.

Or take another example: when I was in Middle School (what we used to call Junior High), a schoolmate of mine was determined to win an Olympic Gold Medal in one of the distance races.  He was constantly running. In fact, except when he was in class, he was never still. He was always moving, running in place, jogging from class to class, etc.  What happened?  His heart became so big that he had to give up running... for life!

These cases could be simply dismissed as anecdotes, except for the fact that for the past several years the medical community has been warning coaches and parents that our kids are training too much, which is causing their bodies to break down and leading to an increase in sports-related injuries ("Unhealthy Competition").  For example, a couple of years ago an article in the NY Times detailed how girls who play soccer year-around are suffering injuries at far greater rates than girls who don't ("The Uneven Playing Field" -- also, see the book, "Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports").  Similarly, the rate of arm injuries among young baseball players has been rising at an alarming rate and is strongly correlated with the advent of year-round "travel ball" tournaments and teams ("Arms-Control Breakdown"). Kids used to play baseball from January to July and then gave their arms a rest from August to December. Not any more. Now, kids as young as eight (and probably younger) play baseball year round. This can't be good for them.

In short, if athletic excellence is a virtue, then in order to acquire it, one needs to practice. Repeatedly. But there are upper limits to how much practice we need. This is especially true of our children. They need time off. There bodies need a break. And they should probably play more than one sport (Hall of Fame baseball player Cal Ripken once remarked that he believed that he became such a good infielder because he played a lot of basketball).

We can't, of course, expect our children to learn the virtues on their own.  They need to learn them from us: their parents and coaches. But that means that we need to practice and acquire the virtues as well, that we need to be able to strike a balance between indifference and obsession. We need to care, but we can't care too much. We need to push them hard enough so that they excel, but we can't push them so hard that their bodies quit on them.

Striking a balance between indifference and obsession applies to skills other than athletic excellence as well. It applies to any and all innate talents that our children may exhibit, whether they are athletic, academic, artistic or something else.  I should be clear that I make no claims that I have cornered the market on where this balance lies. However, given how the rate of athletic injuries among our youth continues to rise, I am certain that many parents and coaches either don't care or don't know where it lies either. I think it's clear that many of us have been a little too obsessive.

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