Team Sports: Virtues and Vices

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By Kevin Sperl

Growing up in the small town of East Grand Forks, Minnesota, Kim Vierra, and her schoolmates had no choice but to play team sports.

“We all had to play or we didn’t have teams,” says Vierra, who played volleyball in college. “Every girl played basketball and volleyball and ran track. It was expected if you were not hurt.”

Vierra enjoyed the experience, saying that team sports provide participants with a sense of team unity, exercise, and a balanced life.

Or, at least it used to.

Vierra, who moved to Bend three years ago with her family, wants her children, Maya, 11, and Taylor, 9, to participate in sports, but worries that its meaning has changed since she was in school.

“Sports for kids are no longer about the joy of participation,” she notes sadly. “It is about winning and being number one.”

Ken Ruettgers also knows a thing or two about team sports. As the seventh overall pick in the 1985 NFL draft and playing his entire ten-year career as a tackle for the Green Bay Packers, he has experienced sports at its highest level.

As the football coach at Sisters High School from 1999 to 2009, he also knows first-hand how expectations of athletes, parents, and coaches have changed.

Believing that sports is a microcosm of society, Ruettgers admits that the emphasis of team sports has changed from building character to building competitive athletes and winning teams.

“Fifty years ago, character was a big deal,” he said. “Now being famous and having status is more important.”

Ruettgers explains that organized youth sports’ original intent was as a way for boys to build character to be better men, but changes in culture have caused changes in the meaning of sports.

“Culture has become performance-based and sports reflect that,” he notes. “Sports are now about skills learned to increase performance. And with these expectations comes specialization.”

Cherie Touchette, a Bend-based personal trainer and multi-sport coach, agrees with Ruettgers and admits to struggling with the contradiction that is team sports.

Touchette’s daughter Emily, 15, competes in water polo and swimming for Summit High School and is a member of The Bend Waves swimming club. Her twins, Ian, and AJ, 6, participate in Tai Chi Wushu and soccer.

“Team sports teach teamwork, cooperation, the ability to work with others and to take turns,” says Touchette. “It keeps kids fit, away from the TV and other screens, helps them sleep better, and leads to a healthy lifestyle.”

But, Touchette laments, that in order for a child to be “competitive,” they must decide on a single sport at a very  young age, something she believes is detrimental to their health.

“Single sport participation creates overuse injuries,” she notes. “That is why I keep my kids in at least two sports, and some think I am crazy for doing so.”

Vierra and her family quickly discovered the phenomenon of early-age specialization soon after relocating from Singapore.

“In Singapore, academics was everything, even at the expense of sports,” says Vierra. “When we came to Bend and enrolled our kids in team sports, we were amazed at how far behind they were at such an early age.”

Maya was in fourth grade at the time she joined the soccer team, discovering she was “leaps and bounds” behind the others.

“That team was undefeated and the coach told me that Maya would be better off on another team with players at her skill level,” laughs Vierra. “I thought, wow, fourth grade and they are already having conversations about who should be on or off the team based on skill level.”

Ruettgers believes that those involved with youth team sports need to revisit their goals and expectations, gauging them by the interest of the kids, not the parents or coaches.

“Ask the athletes why they participate and what their hopes are,” he suggests, adding that he would expect answers that included wanting to be part of a team and doing something fun with their buddies.

“There is an opportunity to talk about what the goals are,” says Ruettgers. “If it is the coach’s goal to win a state championship, but is not what the players want, there is the makings for a disaster.”

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