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Young Endurance Runners Draw Cheers & Concerns

My Reaction to the New York Times article written by Barry Berak on 10/4/12

I read the Sunday, November 4, 2012, NY Times article by Barry Berak, “Young Endurance Runners Draw Cheers and Concerns,” with an open mind and enthusiasm as a long time distance runner and someone who knows the psychological and physical benefits of running from a young age.  

Kaytlynn Welsch, 12 and Heather Welsch, 10, sisters, photo appears prominently before running a 13-mile mountain course in Utah this past September.  They are phenomenal athletes outrunning those two and three times their ages on grueling courses. 

The concerns I have about two tweens training and competing at this level are reasonable given my years treating eating disorders, raising a daughter and son and being a fellow athlete.  Are these girls’ bodies being unduly taxed?  Shouldn’t they have more body fat stores given that they are 10 and 12 and likely pre-pubescent or early in menstruation?  Are they really equipped physically, mentally and emotionally to handle the rigors of training and competing at an adult level? 

I tried to find “fault” with the parents, but, based on the article, there seems to be a lot of love and firm, perhaps some would say, too firm, a hand.  It is easy to judge from the outside, and I try not to do so.  Each child is an individual and it is best not to make sweeping generalities regarding how to raise and support children.   An article, just like a photo, can only paint or portray one minor slice of life.  So rather than respond with sweeping statements regarding what is good or bad for the Welschs, I found myself lingering on the information surrounding the content of the piece.  

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Three issues emerged:  need to please, fear and competition. 

Both of these girls seem quite “attached” to their parents, particularly their father, as role model, first man in their life, and coach.  It is quite clear and appropriate that their wish is to please him, and indeed it does seem that he is very gratified by the success and spirit of his daughters. 

Question:  Is the need to please him based on reasonable expectations of them?

The article commented on fears the girls have of monsters hiding in lakes and bears lurking around bends on the rugged wooded trails. 

Question:  Are these reasonable “irrational” fears or are they representations of other concerns the girls are experiencing that are not being overtly or otherwise expressed?

It is appropriate for siblings, particularly siblings of the same gender (and close in age) to compete for all kinds of things and people, particularly for mom and dad’s attention and affection.  The need to outdo each other, take secret or overt pleasure in their sibling’s failures (without being the cause or having a direct hand in it) is normal.  It is also normal for girls to want to be daddy’s favorite daughter.  Kaytlynn is competitive and wants to outdo her sister, Heather.  The article states, “The girls are natural rivals. Kaytlynn will never let Heather beat her, and Rodney [father] wishes the older girl felt as competitive against everyone else.” 

Question:  What is the price of competition and who is the ultimate beneficiary – the one who is competing or the parent?

I do know that children do psychologically better overall, and certainly in highly competitive environments, with a secure infrastructure – that they feel safe, trusting, able to communicate and express emotions and are respected for who they are (and are not,) in a family.  This is what ultimately builds their self-worth and self-esteem. 

In order to facilitate children faced with similar extraordinary talents as the Welsch children and for helping guide all children through the rigors of life in a highly competitive and complex world it seems reasonable to consider the following: 

  •  Be aware of children’s need to please parents or those in charge, i.e. coach.  Is the need to please a reasonable pursuit of praise, reassurance and support or do they feel compelled to do well in sports, academics, or other talents and interest because they fear parental rejection, displeasure, disappointment or anger?
  •  Are their fears reasonable?  All children are afraid of irrational occurrences, i.e. monsters appearing in a lake or under the bed.  Are their fears projected on to monsters when in fact they are really afraid of the rigors of athletic or other competitive events or perhaps are frightened of displeasing someone important to them?  
  • Are the competitive issues between and among siblings appropriate or based on inappropriate expectations from parents or other authority figures?  

The Welsch sisters have extraordinary athletic talents. Their gifts ought to be cultivated and praised.  This is not the issue.  Orienting children in their direction of the ‘their’ sun is the goal.  Doing it in a way that supports physical, mental and emotional growth based on the unique needs of the child ought to dictate the respective path. 

Judy Scheel, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., author of When Food Is Family, is the Founder and Executive Director of Cedar Associates Foundation.

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