Competitive sports are too competitive

The Pleasure Ridge Park high school football team hit the field at 3:45 with an hour-long film review and weight session already behind them. It was a hot August day in Louisville, Kentucky and when head coach David Stinson began the first drill it was a scorching 34 degrees Celsius, sapping energy and testing the mental toughness of his players, all of whom were trying to grab a coveted spot on the varsity team. At 5:30, drills were over, but Stinson’s true test of mettle was just about to begin, “gassers”: down-and-backs of the field in full pads. Stinson wasn’t going to stop until he weeded out the mentally weak players, the ones who wouldn’t be able to perform come game time. The sprints weren’t over until someone quit.

Does it sound strange to say that competitive sports are getting too competitive? For many people, the pre-season ritual above is foreign, something they have never experienced because at a certain stage in athletics you reach a crossroads: focus more seriously on the sport, or quit. Many rightfully choose to quit and avoid three hour practices, gassers, and film sessions. However, there are plenty of pressures that prevent players from doing so: parents with dreams of college scholarships are the cliché, but so is fitting in with friends or creating a certain social perception for yourself.

Let’s go back to the football field, where coach Stinson is doing his best to make Pleasure Ridge Park high-school as ironic a name as possible for his players. It took a half-hour of sprinting to make the first player collapse. The second followed ten minutes later, a fifteen year-old Sophmore named Max Gilpin. Becoming unresponsive after his collapse, Gilpin was taken to hospital and three days later he was dead from septic shock, multiple organ failure and heat stroke.

Now, I was not at the field when Gilpin ran himself into the ground on August 20, 2008,  but I have been involved in similar situations in my sporting career, and the pressure to succeed and continue running has always come from an outside influence. Gilpin didn’t stop because he was afraid of getting cut, or losing out on a scholarship opportunity. He wouldn’t gain the prestige of varsity sports, and his teammates would view him as a quitter. Athletes do not push themselves to death in the name of fun.

What is concerning is that this type of attitude is being seen at earlier ages than ever before. Specializing in a single sport is perceived as the only way to succeed and attain college scholarships and professional opportunities, while in fact, many star athletes cite the fact that they played a multitude of sports as the reason they are so successful in one. Steve Nash is a perfect example, but Deion Sanders visits to both the Super Bowl and World Series shows that you can be a successful major athlete in multiple sports.

Although misguided, this notion has many kids playing competitively, having heavy practice schedules, and training on their own time at much earlier ages. What Stinson thought was a normal practice is, in fact, insane – but the mindset of people associated with these sports is that it is completely normal. One spectator commented on Stinson’s practice saying “it was just regular” and that “you hear them being threatened every day, stuff like 'If you don't straighten up, you're out of here.'”

A major reason why these types of activities are viewed as normal is that with all this pressure to succeed, players and parents view coaches as the authority to guide them towards a scholarship or a pro career, and essentially give them full control. In reality, these coaches are often not qualified to have this type of absolute power, and it is important to be able to recognize where their authority ends. This was unfortunately highlighted by Gilpin’s death.

When I personally look back upon my sports career, many of the pressures to focus on a single sport came from exterior influences. Yet, if I had my choice I would still be playing every sport I could, and so, I think, would many of the people who had quit when their coach told them they would have to practice four times a week to be on the team.

Sports are a great opportunity to develop teamwork, leadership, work ethic, and other attributes I list on my resume to cover my lack of job experience. However, I hope that the current trend towards younger competitive sports can be reversed, because for many people, these pressures severely outweigh the rewards of playing in the first place.

//Mac Fairbairn

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