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Getting--and keeping--children active. (The shape Of Things To Come).

nationwide cuts in school physical education programs, ever-faster, fattier foods and an unprecedented epidemic of video games and other indoor virtual entertainments have brought cases of obesity among the young to record levels. The call to action has finally begun to resonate from legislators, educators and non-profit groups: We must get kids moving their bodies again, as kids, historically anyway, were wont to do.

In his recent exploration of motivating factors for children in sports, Glyn C. Roberts, PhD, writes that personal goals are an essential ingredient in the motivation process. They give meaning to achievement. And though goals can originate as instructions given by significant others--or be culturally defined--they will be useful to motivate a child only if she adopts them herself. How is this achieved? A second vital component offers insight.

"Personal agency beliefs" is Robert's term for what a child believes he is capable of. Essentially, for motivation to stick, the child's evaluation of his capability must result in the belief that the goal can be attained. Desire and belief, then, are the fundamental concepts central to keeping kids motivated to stay active. This seems fairly obvious. But the outcome depends enormously on the approach to self-evaluation a child chooses.

The studies Roberts cites overwhelmingly support the idea that a task-focused approach to performance evaulation, as opposed to an egocentric one, is critical to a child's long-term commitment to--and enjoyment of--a sports activity. A child's task focus evaluates performance based on task completion, and not on how they perform compared to others.

The key is that a task-involved participant won't see their current ability as particularly relevant; the focus is on mastery, and therefore improvement. The child is more likely to persist in the face of failure and to select challenging tasks. These behaviors foster perceptions of competence and result in increased interest in the activity, and eventually even high performance.

On the other hand, an ego-orientation can result in behaviors that ultimately undermine achievement. With an ego approach, Roberts writes, "demonstating ability with little effort ... is evidence of even higher ability. Thus the ego-involved person is inclined to use the least amount of effort to realize the goal of action." This sabotages prolonged effort. If the child's perception of ability is low, he avoids the challenge, does not persist in the face of difficulty or drops out of the sport. Roberts wisely notes that these behaviors are maladaptive for achievement, but adaptive to the participant because they disguise a lack of ability.

Though undoubtedly a team sport in many important ways, running may be the ideal activity for encouraging a task focus by virtue of its often solitary training imperative. According to Running & FitNews editorial board member Francis O'Connor's Textbook of Running Medicine, The American Academy of Pediatrics has a simple approach to determining age-appropriate distances in young runners: if the child enjoys it and is asymptomatic, there are no limits on how far she can go.

How should we proceed to encourage our children to get out into the game? The Textbook says that organized fitness activity in children should have three main goals: to improve fitness and coordination, to minimize injury, and to enhance social development. Get your children thinking about short-term goals, and not how they compare to their friends and siblings. In addition to supervising skill enhancement, adults should also look to prevent burnout in children, or the training and competition from dominating a child's life.

Kids should be given a liberal warm-up and cool-down, with plenty of stretching. This has as much to do with establishing a lifetime of good habits as it does injury prevention in the pediatric population. Children should start at a low intensity for several weeks, and progress at the often-quoted rate of no more than 10% a week.

Children are not small adults and require special consideration. Their bones have growth plates that contain a great deal of cartilage, which can make permanent, debilitating injury a concern if they are overtrained. Psychologically, they need time to grow too. Athletic parents should be wary of projecting the passions of a lifetime onto a child who hasn't had time to completely figure out his likes and dislikes. Jordan Metzl, MD, medical director of The Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes and author of the book The Young Athlete, advises that we always "let kids set the thermostat on how much they want to do." In an era of competition-crazed coaches pushing steroids on their varsity squads, his focus on fun and safety is in welcome agreement with Dr. O'Connor's Textbook.

With chapter headings ranging from "The Benefits of Youth Sports," to "What Happens When Kids Do Too Much"--including a guide for parental behavior entitled "Life on the Sidelines"--Metzl's book may be of use to anyone navigating the sea of youth sports calling their children to don uniforms in increasing numbers and younger than ever.

The Young Athlete undergirds Metzl's practical advice with anecdotes from his practice as a pediatric sports physician. A one-time member of the U.S. Olympic Committee Advisory Board and former college soccer player himself, Metzl encourages moderation and a focus on fun, while at the same time maximizing progress. If you are a parent with no experience in sports--or, perhaps, especially if you have sports experience--these three books are worth a look.

(Advances in Motivation in Sport and Exercise, Glyn C. Roberts, PhD, ed., Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 2001, 446 pp.; Textbook of Running Medicine, Francis O'Connor, MD, and Robert Wilder, MD, eds., McGraw-Hill, New York, NY, 2001, 696 pp.; The Young Athlete by Jordan Metzl, MD, and Carol Shookhoff, Back Bay Books, 2002, 304 pp.)
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Publication:Running & FitNews
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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