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Roger Marolt: Pressure vs. playtime in Aspen

I attended an organizational meeting the other night for the Aspen Valley Ski Club cross-country ski program for kids. I was incredulous at what I heard from the coaches.

Get a load of this: the younger kids meet to ski only once or twice a week depending on “how they feel.” When they do show up, they ski for just an hour and a half, beginning with a break for snacks and ending with another one for hot chocolate. The kids don’t travel to races until they’re in fifth grade, at the very earliest!



The stated goal of the program is to “have fun.” Guess how much of the meeting was devoted to talking about performance, competition and training? Not one second!

I thought to myself, could this really be happening right here in Aspen, Colorado? I was dumbfounded.



This has to be the best kids’ program I’ve ever seen!

That meeting really got me thinking. I had to wonder at how in the world kids have let us screw up sports for them. The conclusion I came up with is so obvious it made me embarrassed. Our kids love us.

As a kid I adored my parents. I would have given up my right arm for them. I might even have considered playing an 80-game little league schedule or signing up for a nine-month-per-year junior hockey program for them. Many of you probably would have done the same. And, so will your kids.

But, that doesn’t mean we should ask them to.

Somewhere along the way we parents seem to have forgotten what is fun about sports. Few of us needed world-class sporting facilities growing up. The excitement was more about building our own ski jumps, making a spectacular dive for a two-hop foul ball so it wouldn’t end up under a car in the parking lot, or running out for a pass right in front of that spot in the field that never dried so you could dive into the mud after catching it.

We didn’t have traveling teams until high school. Our seasons were shorter than our attention spans. Most of the trophies were won on the playground or in neighborhood back yards; the most coveted ones shiny with Bactine and covered with giant, square Band-Aids. By the time we got to ninth grade most of us still dreamed we could be the next Willie Mays or Chris Evert.

Today, we have third-graders playing full-contact football, traveling teams for fifth-grade soccer, and elementary school skating seasons that go on for an ice age. We’re grouping ballerinas by skill levels before they can spell “pliet.” Most of our children will feel bad about not making the “good” team before they’re old enough to be indifferent about Sponge Bob Square Pants.

The money we spend on kids’ sports only adds pressure. We leave them no out when we build pro-style swimming pools, ice rinks and ball fields. There are no excuses when we hire the best coaches money can buy. Major league equipment is expected to produce major league results.

When, not if, our kids don’t end up with college scholarships or professional contracts, it can only be through their own faults. We’ve given them every opportunity to succeed and no occasion to fail.

Some kids can handle this kind of pressure. Most kids can’t. I’ve read that, of all kids who participate in organized sports, 70 percent are out of structured athletics by the time they are 13. Whether these kids are systemically forced out or just quit due to frustration is anybody’s guess. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that this large group of kids is no longer participating at just the age when video games, malls, drugs, booze and sex are becoming interesting to them.

“But pressure and competition is what the real world is all about,” many extra-large athletic supporters will tell us. “We need to prepare our kids.” Well then, if we are so concerned about adjusting our kids to the ways of the “real world,” why have we gone so far out of our way to raise them here in Aspen, Colorado; a place one dollar sign, a few comas and seven or eight digits removed from reality? Our kids will get plenty of that later. For now, let them enjoy our home-field advantage.

We parents need to remember that we are not better people because our third-grader just kicked the winning shot past a goalie distracted by a puppy on the sideline. We are not more caring because we wear out a brand-new Ford Excursion every two years carting children around the state to hockey tournaments, racking up more video-watching time than playing time. We are not better athletes because our 5-year-olds can link a few turns in Highland Bowl.

Historically, Aspenites have been trendsetters. We like to do things better here. Let’s buck the national trend of pushing our kids too hard instead of pulling for them. Let’s reduce the pressure that’s squashing our kids’ natural inclination to play and converting it to prepubescent obesity.

God has given us a pretty good infrastructure to start with here. Let’s stop the fund-raising and building and recruiting and sideline hollering for a little while. Why not try something special with our kids? Let’s start giving more than we get from our children’s activities.

Let ’em have fun. (And don’t forget the hot chocolate!)

[Go one-on-one with Roger Marolt at roger@maroltllp.com]


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