Hoops coach to kids: Play everything!

Ellen Burstyn in the 2011 film based on the '72 team. Cathy Rush has seen a lot change since she started coaching college basketball in 1970 -- and when it comes to kids getting too specialized in sports, she's not sure that's a good thing.

When Rush signed on as the women's hoops coach at Immaculata, PA's Immaculata College in 1970, she had "no budget"; her team practiced in a novitiate because the gym had burned down; and the uniform consisted of pleated wool jumpers, ironed white shirts, and bloomers.

Rush modernized the team and led the school to three straight national championships in 1972-4, upping the nation's interest in women's college hoops, and thanks to Title IX, a lot has changed since the early '70s – but Rush thinks that might be hurting kids who focus too much on a single sport, not just injury-wise but interpersonally as well.

Rush, who retired from coaching in 1977 and went into a family business running day and sports camps, addressed the St. Mary Health Expo in Falls, PA last weekend, and her keynote covered not just the issues facing parents of young athletes, but her own history, which includes a breast-cancer diagnosis in 1990 that she regrets keeping secret. She advised women in a similar situation to use their resources and "stick together."

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But before her speech, she talked to reporter Gwen Shrift of PhillyBurbs.com about, among other things, a shift towards specialization in sports for kids. Rush thinks it might be better if kids played a wider variety of sports: "There are so many teams now, that kids may get into one sport, that once they grow up and fill out, may not be their thing," she told Shrift. "We're seeing injuries in children that shouldn't occur."

Rush also mentioned that, while women have more professional opportunities than they did when she started, "I don't know if this time is easier for women" – everyone's overscheduled, especially parents who may have to drive kids to practices and meets for year-round sports, plus keep track of schedules and equipment, buck kids up after tough losses, and learn basic sports medicine. That's part of the reason she laments the decline in kids just going outside to play with neighborhood friends all day; another reason is the key social skills that children develop by playing games on their own. "I don't think kids know how to solve disputes among themselves," she said. "They don't play games together anymore." And when a problem comes up – a foul, a line call – "They're always looking for the referee or the parent" to help them handle it.

In a way, Rush's nostalgia for a time when kids just ran out the front door and into the arms of a Saturday seems quaint. The scenario she describes rings true (my mother had an actual, literal dinner bell that she rang to summon me and my brother in from Ghosts In The Graveyard), but the days of parents not knowing where their children are for most of a summer afternoon are probably behind us.

But in another way, she's exactly right. I learned a lot about getting along with people from the neighborhood games of four-square – mostly because we didn't all get along. And my summer tennis league, which operated on an honor system, was an early lesson in the concept that sometimes cheaters get away with it.

Should we return to an era when kids "playing sports" meant a spirited round of Capture the Flag at the park down the street? Or is that not realistic? Does specializing in a single sport, as early as grade school, let kids maximize their talent and interest? Or does it lead to injuries, burnout, and the rest of the family resenting their roles as support staff? It's not black and white; let us know the nuances in the comments.

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