If your child has shown athletic promise, it doesn't take much to realize that sports are not all fun and games. As the sports industry has exploded in recent years, many pressures from the professional world -- including performance-enhancing drugs like anabolic steroids -- have trickled down to, and sometimes flooded, the high school and even middle school ranks.
Many parents are content if their kids play a different sport each season, without additional workouts. However, as the level of competition increases, particularly with year-round "select" sports, some families are incorporating private coaches and more intense training regimens into their kids' schedules.
For Dan Potts, owner of the Advanced Athlete training facility in Seattle's Lake City neighborhood, the need for additional weight training is a reality that must be handled carefully, especially in the case of young athletes.
Too many weight training programs, especially for sports like football and wrestling, start and end with traditional weight-lifting exercises that can increase muscle mass, but don't build strength that translates to performance on the field. They also don't serve growing bodies. With those types of programs, Potts says, athletes end up "renting the strength, not owning it."
Potts' training philosophy at Advanced Athlete is built around the idea of functionality. "We start by building a solid base of functional strength, and that comes with building a lot of core movements," he says. Once the base is secure, sports-specific movements can be added.
It takes time and it takes commitment, which is one reason he starts training athletes as young as 11 years old. "At that age it's mostly working with the medicine ball, stabilization, building a foundation." For younger kids, one workout a week can make an immense difference during the course of a year, he says.
This is not to say he approves of the workload on many of today's young athletes, and he is not shy about telling parents when to ease up. Sometimes that means a break from conditioning or from skill workouts. "Sometimes the best thing for a young athlete is just to take a couple months off and work on their studies," he says.
"There are coaches -- and parents -- who want their kids playing ball 13 months a year. You let a kid do that, he's fried. The parents say, 'But he wants to.' I tell them, 'He's a kid. He wants to please you.' You can't believe the excitement they bring after some time off."
As for performance enhancers such as steriods, it might surprise parents to learn that 6 percent of high school students questioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2003 said they'd tried anabolic steroid pills or injections at least once. That's 6 percent of the students, not 6 percent of the athletes.
Parents should not assume that only boys who play organized sports are at risk. While athletes are still the biggest users, steroid use by non-athletes has been documented in both genders simply to improve body image. According to Charles Yesalis, M.P.H., Sc.D. of Pennsylvania State University, steroid use among girls increased substantially during the 1990s. "It's at an all-time high right now," he says, with up to 5 percent of high school girls and 7 percent of middle-schoolers admitting trying them at least once.
One might think that the list of steroids' possible side effects -- including acne and breast development in boys, excessive body hair growth in girls, and heart attacks and liver cancer -- would be enough to deter young users. The insidious thing about steroids, however, is that they work. If your goal is to be bigger and stronger, there's very little doubt that they can make a difference. What's more, athletes usually feel great while using them.
In the words of the late Ken Caminiti, professional baseball's National League MVP in 1996, who was quoted posthumously in a recent Sports Illustrated article: "I felt like a kid. I was running better. I'd be running the bases and think, 'Man, I'm fast!' And I had never been that fast. But I was. Steroids made me like that."
Caminiti died in 2004 at age 41 from an overdose of cocaine and opiates.
And while it's tempting to point the finger at high-profile athletes for making such drugs acceptable, for Potts, the blame lies elsewhere. "The biggest thing is the mentality that exists in the schools," he says. Coaches who tell their players they need to be stronger, and who use weight-room performance as a yardstick for ability and commitment to the team, and who don't actively counsel against enhancers, are opening the door to abuse and turning a blind eye. "That's a program you want to steer away from," he notes.
For some kids, the pressure to "juice up" may come from parents as well as coaches, leaving them feeling like they have no one to turn to. Kids in that situation need to find someone in their life to confide in -- an adult they can trust, not a peer. It might be a guidance counselor, an uncle or aunt, a family friend or even their conditioning coach.
"A lot of kids talk to us," Potts says. "They tell us stuff their parents won't hear about for another 10 years. We try to create that atmosphere. It breeds confidence, and confidence breeds success. We try to give them that release."
The pressure for kids to perform is built in to all athletic pursuits. The last thing parents need to worry about is whether their kids are subjected to enough performance anxiety. Quite the contrary. One of the best ways parents can help their children as athletes is to give them a perspective on their successes, failures and ultimate goals. Unfortunately, this means a lot of parents need to give themselves perspective as well.
"I had a parent talking to me about her 11-year-old son the other day," Potts recalls, "and she said, 'Well, what about his career?' I told her, 'He's 11! He doesn't have a career!'"
Parents need to look out for the needs of their children as children first, not athletes. While Potts acknowledges there are unprecedented pressures and fears of falling behind out there, successful and creative alternatives exist that can lead to good performance on the field, and happier kids at home. "When we get parents that understand commitment and are concerned about their kids, it makes a huge difference," he says.
Josh Parks is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor and father of two. He also regularly contributes articles to baseballnotebook.com.
Originally published in the July, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.