A DNA test recently made available in the US can determine whether your child will be a better football player or long-distance runner. That is, should your child be investing his or her time in power or endurance sports? The bigger question is: When to run the test? On your newborn? Your toddler? Your eight-year-old? Your tween? Or, not at all?
News of a sports gene was announced a few years ago and today a simple swab of the inside cheek could become big business selling to anxious parents who already closely guide and prod their offspring. An estimated 45 million youth between the ages of 6 and 18 engage in organized sports. With marketing experts in the driver's seat, what parent will be able to resist the opportunity to know if a son or daughter has what it takes to excel in a particular sport?
Dr. Theodore Friedmann, director of the University of California-San Diego Medical Center's interdepartmental gene therapy program, told the New York Times that ACTN3 testing is "an opportunity to sell new versions of snake oil." Others in the field say the genetic test has limitations: that athletic prowess involves more than the ACTN3 gene being tested for, and that factors such as training, nutrition, and environment play a role. I would add a child's desire and passion for a sport of her choosing should be factored in, too.
In this era of competitiveness, children as young as age six focus on one sport and become "specialists." As the research accumulates, the psychological and physical dangers are evident. Sports that used to be simple fun demand more training, more time, and way too often come with more pressure from parents and coaches. It's no wonder that overuse accounts for up to 50 percent of all pediatric sports injuries. Emergency room visits for child and adolescent sports injuries are on the rise. And, burnout from too much involvement defeats the purpose of encouraging lifelong exercise. To prevent injury, the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness recommends:
--one to two days per week off from competition and training specific to the sport
--not placing a child on two teams in the same sport, the town and the traveling team, for example, to avoid excessive training and weekday as well as weekend play
--a two to three month break from that sport each year
The nation is obsessed with sports and families are bombarded with examples of highly successful young athletes. Children and parents see cheering fans, spectacular plays, young heroes being carried off on the shoulders of their teammates, lucrative contracts and big buck endorsements. How can that not seem glamorous, enticing, possible? And now there is a kit with a simple, noninvasive test that predicts "a child's natural athletic strengths" according to the Atlas Sports Genetics, a Boulder, Colorado company who promises to send the results back within a few weeks. Test kits are priced as high as $999.00.
When you combine the competitive nature of parenting and the hopefulness of parents with a test's availability, what parents will be able to resist spending $149.00 (recommended by Atlas for ages one and up) to discover they could be raising a future Olympian or pro-football quarterback? Or in the least, looking at a possible "full ride" through college on an athletic scholarship? Are parents of only children, who have one chance to see their child excel in a sport, more likely to collect their child's DNA for testing than parents with more children?
Copyright by Susan Newman