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USA Swimming Revelations just a tipping point…

 By:  Doug Gardner, Ed.D.

Over the past several years, I have been asked what are the new and upcoming trends in sport and applied sport psychology.  These questions usually come from graduate students or others interested in gaining my insight into the cutting-edge training methods for elite athlete of the future.  I usually counter with something unexpected and rather shocking.

I have said and I will continue to argue that over the next decade, we will hear more and more stories related to sexual, physical and emotional abuse of young athletes, who participated in the explosive period of specialization and professionalization of youth sport, starting in, roughly the early 1990′s.  Specifically, I believe we will hear revelations of these types of abuses ten to twenty years, after-the-fact, when the children and adolescents who have experienced such devastating experiences, are old enough to both come to grips with their experiences and feel safe enough to come forward.

In Northern California alone, there  are well over 5,000 travel sport programs, covering several sports, for players between the ages of 7 to 19.  Many of these sport teams are formed in response to the dumbing down of other youth programs, where competition is replaced with feel good games, where everyone is a winner.  In my opinion, this has given rise to polarization and extremism as to what is the most appropriate venue for youth sport.    Travel teams compete in weekend tournaments where coaches, parents and young players stay in hotels and share much common space and time, especially when considering the year-around nature of youth sport. 

The danger in these travel programs is the lack of rules, governing and licensing bodies and overall oversight over the individual teams and the adults who coach, teach and supervise young athletes.  The revelations discussed in the recent ESPN Outside the Lines investigation about wide-spread sexual, physical and emotional abuse within USA Swimming(, is our warning that this issue is much larger than we know and should serve as a wake-up call to all parents, youth sport organizations, teams, coaches and most importantly, to the young and impressionable children and adolescents who entrust us with their physical, social and psychological well-being. 

As more cases similar to the USA swimming scandal come out into the open, I contend that we will hear more stories of these types of abuses.  I hope that I am wrong about this, but I do believe that the youth sport environment, especially when not regulated, can be a fertile ground for those who have ill intentions with young children and adolescent athletes.   Little League and other national non-profit sport organizations have governing bodies who establish and enforce rules, regulations and educational growth.  

Where are these governing bodies for the thousands of travel programs who bounce from one weekend tournament to the next?  Is there a system in place for background checks, coaching education and other skill-development aspects of sport?  Theoretically, travel programs are supposed to have the best coaches and teachers, but how does the consumer really know about these coaches outside of their working relationship? 

Yet, parents often blindly buy into so-call gurus, at what-ever cost, because their son or daughter may get a scholarship or have a measure of success they deem important.  If I were the parents of one of these USA swimmers, I do not know what I would do.

Something has to be done.  Not just within USA swimming, but in all of youth sport, especially with travel programs who work outside of traditional youth sport systems.   If nothing is done, than youth sport may go the way of the Catholic Church, by continuing to deny the existence of such deep-seeded problems and then crumble under its own weight of this denial.   

At what cost and jeopardy do we place our children, just for the chance of elusive and short-lived victory or success?

Sad Lessons from the Steroid Era

In college I took a class on nuclear disarmament and our professor was an advocate of it. In that class, we had to write one paper for our grade in the course. I argued that disarmament was a noble cause, yet it was an impossibility because the knowledge to build a nuclear weapon would never go away. You can eliminate the bomb, but you cannot eliminate knowledge of how to build one. The professor disagreed with me and I got a C+ on my paper and in the course.

I believe there is a similarity between nuclear disarmament and the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in sport. As I sat there and watched Mark McGwire cry yesterday, I started to think that we are all becoming desensitized to the whole situation. Do you remember when ESPN first began reporting on sport related people getting DUI’s and being caught with illicit drugs in the early 1990′s? I do. Athletes were ridiculed and viewed in a similar fashion as today’s steroid admitters. How terrible it used to be when an athlete got busted driving under the influence, now it is a 10 second story and on to the next one. Even though Gilbert Arenas did a very stupid thing, his conduct is being overshadowed by Mark McGwire today, and then something else tomorrow. We all know how short the public’s memory is…How many more players and how many more admissions will it take until steroid and PED use becomes a 10-second blurb in then news? How long will it take for all of us to be desensitized to illicit PED use in sport?

The sad thing to me is, that I believe, despite all of the wonderful anti-steroid and PED use messages, the young athlete of today views all of this from a very different lens. What is most striking to me about PEDs is that they work. Even though I took graduate level multivariate statistics courses, one does not have to be schooled In Sabermatics to see the glaring discrepancy between the number of homeruns and the distance of them before and after steroid testing. Athletes who used to play 155-162 games a year before drug testing could not play at that pace over the past few years. Just ask Mark McGwire. Hell, I think the banning of Amphetemines had the same impact on the game as did the testing for steroid and other PED use. McGwire discussed his desire to get healthy again and to repair his aging and broken down body. He was able to do this, make millions of dollars in the process, change the complexion of the game of baseball into one of sheer power over skill and took us all on a false and misleading road in the Summer of 1998. To me, there is no difference between anyone in professional baseball associated with steroids and PEDS and the Wall Street executives who defrauded millions of hard working Americans out of their 401k’s and retirement plans, during the recent economic crisis.

Everyone knows that, in the end, it is what the kids think, that matters. I feel terrible in saying what I am about to say, but I believe it to be the truth. I believe that the up-and-coming talented athlete of today is becoming desensitized to all of the illicit PED talk. They see people complain and discuss the moral, ethical and legal implications, yet most of these athletes only receive public scorn and a black eye on their legacy. In about one to two years, most will remember the athletes’ indiscretions, yet they will be placed in their proper historical perspective as time passes and the immediacy of the situation has passed. Roberto Alomar is an excellent example of this, as his not being elected into baseball’s hall of fame had more to do with his spitting in an umpires eye than it did on him as a person or his ability to play the game. Nobody has mentioned this as a reason why Alomar did not make the hall, but I bet this is what held him back one year. And, as soon as Tiger Woods wins another Major, all of his sponsors will come flooding back to him.

Kids do not understand the concept of legacy, as they are too busy being consumed in creating one of their own. What is going to stop a young athlete from attempting to use steroids and other PED’s if nobody will know or test for them? They see athletes, after the fact, admitting to using them, yet they see individuals who also had great athletic careers, made a ton of money and had great experiences. All because they cheated. “Well, they got away with it, why can’t I?” is what I think some kids learn out of this. With greater testing at the higher levels of sport, I am concerned that there will be a trickle-down effect on steroid and PED use, to levels of sport where it is not being tested for. What this means in all sports, is that the risk of athletes using these types of drugs at lower levels and at younger ages can possibly increase because there is little or no testing. The one universal truth in illegal PED use in sport, is that the cheaters are ahead of the testers and cheaters find a way to skirt the system and rules.

The implications of this are tremendous. With all of the anti-steroid advertisements, programs and discussion about the use of PED’s, is the message being lost and drowned out by those who admitted using it to achieve great athletic endeavors? Is their remorse, humanization of the problem and apologies deflecting the real damage done by them? Nobody is erasing Mark McGwire’s records from the record book. Many will look back at the Summer of 1998 with great love and admiration, as Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both led us in believing in the Ponzie Scheme called MLB baseball. Their numbers still stand. They are glaringly different than those who came before them and those who are currently hitting a lot of home runs in the big leagues. Will anyone hit over 70 home runs in a year without performance enhancing drugs? I don’t know that, but I just hope some kid out there isn’t plotting the course for that now.

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