What causes and what could prevent … sudden death in athletes

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hank gathers

Millions of television viewers were watching as Loyola Marymount’s basketball star Hank Gathers collapsed near mid-court during the semifinals of the East Coast Conference basketball game last year. Gathers, 23, had been getting medical treatment for a heart problem, but thought he could continue to play the game he loved. His unexpected death brought new attention to what doctors call exercise-related sudden death.

Gathers was one of a handful of high-level athletes who have died suddenly while participating in sports. Two years earlier, professional basketball player “Pistol Pete” Maravich died during a low-key pickup basketball game. In 1986, Flo Hyman, a U.S. Olympic volleyball star, died unexpectedly as she exercised. And in 1984, Jim Fixx, a famous runner who had written books about fitness, died while jogging.

These events, when they occur to a well-known athlete, always attract an avalanche of media attention, because the victims were thought to have been healthy and fit. Another reason for so much interest is the rarity of this kind of death, although statistics are hard to compile. It is very likely that many exercise-related sudden deaths are not reported.

Four Main Causes

Exercise-related sudden death occurs in men and women of all ages. Among people older than 30, almost all cases have been attributed to heart attack. For athletes younger than that, causes of death fall into four main categories: heart problems, bleeding in the brain, drugs, and heat stress.

Most deaths of young athletes are due to structural abnormalities or diseases of the heart. They can involve the heart’s arteries, valves, connective tissue, or the aorta, the main vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. These problems are usually congenital, which means they have existed since birth. Maravich, for example, was found to be missing a left coronary artery, an important vessel that supplies blood to the heart muscle.

The second most common cause of sudden death in young athletes is bleeding, known as hemorrhage, in the brain. One type of this kind of bleeding is a ruptured aneurysm, a condition in which a blood vessel becomes dilated and bursts. The tendency to develop this condition may be hereditary.

Some drugs, particularly cocaine, cause an irregular heartbeat that can contribute to collapse, unconsciousness, and death. Cocaine abuse has been blamed for blood clots that caused heart attacks even in people who were otherwise healthy and had no history of heart disease.

The fourth category, heat stress, may occur when an endurance event, such as a marathon or triathlon, is held in hot weather with high humidity.

Who’s at Risk?

Studies of people older than 30 who died of exercise-related sudden death indicate that risk factors of high blood cholesterol, a history of cigarette smoking, and a family history of coronary artery disease are common. With younger athletes, predicting risk of sudden death is more difficult.

Many heart problems go undetected until the teen years and some aren’t discovered until the person dies. In 75 percent of exercise-related sudden death cases, neither the athlete nor family members were aware of anything wrong with the victim’s heart.

Young people who can be identified as being at risk include those who have lost consciousness during exercise in the past, those with a family history of sudden death or heart attack at an early age, and those with family members who have had seizures, congenital heart disease, or early coronary artery disease.

The Sickle-cell Question

sickle-cell

Another possible risk factor is the presence of sickle-cell trait, a disorder that occurs when a child inherits an abnormal gene from one parent. The trait is related to the often fatal sickle-cell anemia people develop when they inherit the gene from both parents. About 8 percent of the African-American population in the United States has the trait, which is rare among nonblack Americans.

Prevention Where Possible

One way to possibly help prevent some exercise-related sudden death in young athletes is to require a pre-participation screening for high school and college sports.

One way to avoid injury-related tragedy is to require competitors to wear proper protective equipment, such as throat protectors for hockey players. In some people, the body’s response to pain from a blow anywhere can cause brain hemorrhage and death.

Finally, sporting events are safer if they are supervised by physicians with resuscitative equipment. That way, immediate care can be provided if needed. In the United States, football and wrestling generally have adequate, consistent medical coverage, but other sports don’t fare as well. Because a physician may not be available for emergencies, coaches in all sports should be trained in basic life-support techniques, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid.

Exercise-related sudden death in athletes cannot always be prevented. However, with proper screening, protective devices, safe training techniques, and adequate emergency care, the chances of unexpected tragedy can be reduced.

Beat high blood pressure without dieting or drugs

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high-blood-pressure

RARELY DOES NEWS THIS GOOD COME OUT about a problem so bad: The new treatment for high blood pressure has finally arrived. After years of scientific testing, it’s made the grade and become the potent Third Option-beyond drugs and diet. But it has some strange side effects: It can make you feel younger, and look younger, too. It can increase blood levels of HDL cholesterol (the beneficial type), he you lose weight, decrease stress and lower risk of heart disease. It’s also as natural as a sunset an easy as a walk in the park. And it’s free. ‘ It’s exercise. @ For years research has been slowly piling up to show that regular workouts may lower blood pressure by 5 to 20 points. But now two brand-new studies appear to give the final blessing to the Third Option by suggesting that it may have far more power to lower blood pressure, and do it in more interesting ways, than anyone thought.

“Results of this new research could substantially change the way we treat moderate and borderline cases of this very serious problem,” says hypertension researcher john D., of San Diego State Exercise seems to directly in lowering blood pressure than previously had been thought.”

GAIN WITHOUT LOSS

In one of the new studies, Dr. Martin and his colleagues put 19 sedentary men with mild hypertension through either an aerobic exercise program or a placebo” regimen (slow calisthenics and stretching). After 10 weeks, the blood pressure of the men in the aerobic group dropped dramatically-from an average of 137/95 at the beginning of the study down to 130/85 at the end.

That’s a change from mild hypertension to high-normal blood pressure. These drops were significant because they brought our test subjects’ readings down out of the range where drug therapy often is considered,” Dr. Martin says. The placebo group, on the other hand, actually had a slight increase in blood pressure (Circulation, May 1990). And later, when they were placed on the exercise program, they showed similar reductions in blood pressure.

This big improvement in the exercisers was expected, but something else was a pleasant surprise. Scientists have known for years that losing weight could lower blood pressure,” Dr. Martin told Prevention. “And they thought that exercise could lower blood pressure only if it also produced substantial weight loss. But that appears not to be the case. Our study found significant blood-pressure reductions even though participants did not experience sizable decreases in weight or body fat. ”

If these findings are borne out by other research, it will mean that exercise has not one but two mechanisms for beating mild hypertension.

Then there was something else. Previous research suggested that it was vigorous exercise that brought blood pressure down. But in this study the subjects weren’t exercising strenuously enough to make profound gains in acrobic endurance. Despite that fact, significant reductions in blood pressure still occurred. Diastolic blood pressure (the second number, which measures arterial pressure while the heart is at rest) came down by an average of 9.6 points, and systolic pressure (the measurement of pressure as the heart contracts) fell by 6.4 points.

People in our study exercised at levels well within their comfort zone. Their exercise consisted of either walking, cycling, jogging or doing any combination of these activities for approximately 30 minutes, four times a week,” says Dr. Martin. “The subsequent reduction in blood pressure suggests that physical activity of even fairly light intensity may be more helpful against hypertension than previous research has led us to think.”

None of this means, though, that reducing body fat and increasing aerobic fitness are not advisable antihypertensive strategies. “Our research simply suggests that exercise may have valuable effects in normalizing blood pressure that work independently of these two other mechanisms,” Dr. Martin says. WORKOUTS VS. WONDER DRUGS

The other study we mentioned was conducted at the Columbia Medical Plan, Columbia, Maryland, in conjunction with johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In it 52 men between ages 18 and 59 with mild hypertension were asked to exercise regularly for 10 weeks while taking either bloodpressure medication or a placebo (inactive pill). Sure enough, blood pressure dropped in afl the subjects (including those who didn’t take medication)-from an average of 145/97 to 131/ 84. Again this decrease was reached without substantial weight loss (Journal the American Medical Association, May 23-30, 1990). The real news here, however, was that the data suggest that aerobic exercise may not be the only kind of a workout that can help pressure. Three days a week, for 50 minutes per workout, the participants in this study walked/jogged or rode a stationary bike and-surprisingly enough-did weight training. It’s surprising because weight training tends to raise blood pres – I sure during the actual lifting and so has long been considered too risky an exercise for people with high blood pressure.

“The findings suggest that weight training need not be dangerous if the lifting is kept fairly light,” pressure. Three days a week, for 50 minutes per workout, the participants in this study walked/jogged or rode a stationary bike and-surprisingly enough-did weight training. It’s surprising because weight training tends to raise blood pres – I sure during the actual lifting and so has long been considered too risky an exercise for people with high blood pressure.

“The findings suggest that weight training need not be dangerous if the lifting is kept fairly light,” says one of the researchers, Mark Effron, M.D., now with Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. “All of the lifts in our study were performed at 40 percent of a participant’s maximal capability, which is a level reported to be associated with acceptable rises in blood pressure.” The weight training was done for 30 minutes each session in a circuit fashion, where lifts were done on 20 different variable-resistance machines.

“While we did find that blood pressure was elevated more just after weight training than after the aerobic exercise,” says Dr. Effron, “the difference in measurement was only slight.

What’s more, pulse rates we lower during the weight training than during the aerobic activities, so the overall demands being put on the heart by the two types of exercise proved to be roughly the same. That’s a significant finding. And it’s very encouraging news for the strength-conscious. ”

Also significant in this study was the discovery that blood-pressure drugs administered in addition to exercise did not lower blood pressure any more than exercise alone. “Patients engaged in a regular program of exercise may not need drug therapy for control of mild hypertension,” the authors of the study conclude. That’s big news for the estimated 40 million Americans with blood-pressure readings in the moderately high range (a diastolic pressure of 90 or more).

Not all these people could do without medication, but moderate workouts could help many of them get off their drugs or not have to use drugs in the first place.

“They should get complete medical clearance from their doctors first, of course, but if an exercise program is approached sensibly, it can be a highly recommendable option to standard drug therapy,” Dr. Effron says.

One more interesting piece of evidence uncovered in the study: Though both exercise and the drugs lowered blood pressure equally well, exercise alone actually proved superior to one of the drugs (propranolol) in affecting cholesterol. Exercise lowered total blood cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the heart-clogging kind) and raised high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the beneficial type). (This has been demonstrated in other research, too.) But in this study, propranolol lowered HDL, which might be a disadvantage for anyone concerned about heart disease.

THE WHYS OF SUCCESS

blood-pressureSo why is it that high blood pressure yields to a little human muscle? Why should firming up the muscles help loosen up the arteries? You might think just the opposite would be true.

“We’re not sure yet, but there are some theories,” Dr. Martin says. “It may well be that the amount of inactivity many of us have been accustomed to is simply unnatural from a biological standpoint. A certain level of physical movement may be necessary to keep the body’s blood-pressureregulating mechanisms working as they should.

“We know, for example, that small arteries can begin to shut down through lack of physical activity, and that regulatory hormones from the kidneys can be adversely affected. Add the effects of psychological stress that can result from too sedentary a lifestyle and you can begin to see just how extensive the ill effects of too little activity can be.”

So if you have high blood pressure and you’ve been given a green light by your doctor, there’s no reason not to take your condition “by the horns and wrestle it to the ground” with a sensible and moderate exercise program. Try to do something, even if it’s just going for a walk or doing yard chores for about 30 minutes at least three days a week.

In combination with whatever other blood-pressure-beating tactics you can employ (i.e. cutting back on sodium, alcohol, tobacco and stress), you should be able to give your blood pressure a darned good run for its money.

Harper offers tax break to sports parents

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Byline: MICHAEL DEN TANDT AND JAMES CHRISTIE; With a report from Gloria Galloway in Ancaster, Ont.

BUCKINGHAM, QUE. AND TORONTO — Parents will get a tax break for their children’s organized physical activities such as soccer, hockey, dance lessons or martial arts, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper promised yesterday in another policy statement geared toward wooing middle-class parents.

soccer“Kids should be able to learn, have fun and be active,” Mr. Harper said in a hockey arena in Buckingham, Que., with a contingent of young hockey players and their parents on hand.

“Governments should encourage not just international excellence, but offer families choices.”

With the initiative, parents will be able to submit with their tax forms a bill worth up to $500 for each child under 16 for any organized activity that encourages physical exercise, said Conservative policy adviser William Stairs. They will be eligible to receive 16 per cent back, or about $80.

Ian Bird, senior leader of the sports community’s lobbying collective the Sport Matters Group, said that Mr. Harper’s proposal “shows the Conservative Party is paying attention to the sport sector.”

“We’d want to see a government move toward a sport budget that’s equal to 1 per cent of the health budget, and an investment in an approach toward physical activity that stretches from playground to podium,” he said.

Sport Matters cited figures from the True Sport Foundation (which is part of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport) that indicate 71 per cent of Canadians believe sports cost too much for all youngsters to take part.

“With researchers predicting that today’s children may be the first generation with a lower life expectancy than their parents, these proposed tax credits are certainly part of the solution,” said Victor Lachance, chair of the True Sport Foundation.

The idea of a sports tax credit goes back at least to 1999 and Dennis Mills’s parliamentary subcommittee report on sports, which called not only for a child-support tax credit for youngsters enrolled in sports, but also for tax credits for coaching costs, officiating, first-aid courses related to sports and female-friendly sports equipment to encourage physical activity among girls.

The ideas were shot down by both Sheila Copps, whose Heritage Department oversaw sports, and Paul Martin, then-minister of finance.

Mr. Martin, who was campaigning in Ancaster, Ont., yesterday, said his party is also planning to offer parents incentives to get their children involved in sports.

parents-and-kidsHe did not specify what they might be but said they were contained in a plan developed by Liberal MP and Public Health Minister Carolyn Bennett that was designed to promote healthy living.

“In terms of tax credits and this kind of thing, while we want to work in this area, let’s be very clear, we also believe that the principal way that you get money into people’s pockets is to cut personal income taxes for the middle class,” Mr. Martin said.

The Tories estimate their promise will cost the federal treasury $130-million annually, based on an estimate of 6.1 million Canadian children under 16.

Mr. Harper, flanked by Lawrence Cannon, the former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister who is the Tory candidate in the West Quebec riding of Pontiac, said the child-fitness tax deduction is in line with a child-care strategy of placing decisions in the hands of parents.

Whether by chance or by design, the proposed tax credit was well-timed for the Conservatives, who were still making hay this morning of remarks made last week by Scott Reid, Mr. Martin’s communications adviser.

Mr. Reid apologized Sunday after suggesting that parents would spend a promised Tory $1,200 daycare tax credit on “beer and popcorn.”

Mr. Harper dismissed the apology, saying Mr. Reid had expressed regret for his choice of words, but not the sentiment.

“I feel a sense of sadness when I hear these comments,” Mr. Harper said.

“We value parents. We think parents are the most critical part of raising kids.”

Exercise Biking Reduces Pain Issues

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People with health problems often find it hard to choose one type of exercise that suitable and gentle for their workout process. In fact, aerobic is one gentle exercise for them. It helps strengthening both the muscle and the back bones which results in back issues.

back painIn addition, there are researches show that working out on an exercise bike will reduce the risk of taking back and heart problems for individuals.

For people who have put so much effort when participating in an exercise program with high-impact, they are more likely to become discouraged and give up. Others may get away from doing exercise for their entire life with the fear that it will affect negatively to their issues.

spinningTherefore, the main key is to find one type of exercise which is convenient and reduce the level of pain for individuals. Pick up some best spin bikes is one of intelligent solutions that this website suggests you to try. You can find out more useful information about spin bike reviews on that website as well. The machine provides lots of practice program with low-impact for individuals in their fitness process.There are many benefits when practicing on an exercise bike. To illustrate, it is especially appropriate with people who have back issues.

  • Give users a gentle type of workout. Some forms of exercise are very difficult for people with back problems because they have to put lots of pressure. For example, running or cycling bicycle around the neighborhood. Exercise machine allows users to engage in working-out without hurting the spine.
  • Offer comfort for typical type of back issue. With people who have spinal stenosis, leaning in a right position when practicing is an ideal form of exercise. This creates a sense of comfort for them rather than just standing up straight for a long period of time. On the other hand, people with osteoarthritis find that exercise biking not only reduce the stiffness, but make these joints become more flexible as well.
  • Improve cardiovascular and the circulation of blood. Actually, aerobic exercises stimulate the improvement of muscular parts. The oxygen and nutrition will find it easier to be delivered to the muscles. And with better circulation of blood, pain in the body will be relieved in a short time.
  • Support for the back system. Practice exercises on a machine strengthen various muscular parts such as the leg and thigh, especially benefit for the hamstrings of your thigh. When riding a bicycle outside your house, there are two main reasons that can cause stroke include the pull and push. On the other hand, practicing with an exercise bike doesn’t target to the bas and back muscles. In addition, all the pelvises help maintaining the body in right position in order to prevent hyperextension for your back system.

indoor-cycling2

  • Enhance the limitation of motion and flexibility. For people who rarely do exercises, muscular parts and ligaments are not practiced regularly which results in stiffness in the future. Therefore, riding an exercise machine enhance the flexibility of your legs, especially the hamstrings.

In general, practice exercises on a machine is one of the best ways to fight against painful problems. Moreover, there are also other forms of exercises with low-impact such as walking, yoga or aquatic therapy. And when you decide to take part in any program, keep in mind that it must be safe and efficient.

Be a good sport–or else! Should a county make being a good sport the law?

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sportsmanshipALMOST EVERYONE is in favor of good sportsmanship. Respecting referees, avoiding fistfights with opponents, and winning without taunting are all ways any game should be played. But should good sportsmanship be the law? That’s the question residents of Nassau County, N.Y., are asking. Their local legislature recently passed a bill that would require all young people who want to play organized sports on county fields to first sign a pledge to be good sports. In the pledge, athletes would promise not to harass officials, not to curse, and not to trash talk or showboat after plays or victories. If players don’t sign, they won’t be allowed to play.

The law would affect athletes’ parents as well. Parents would have to sign a pledge agreeing to teach children that honest effort is as important as winning. And one coach or parent from each league would have to attend a sportsmanship class. The bill leaves it to individual leagues to decide how to punish kids or parents who violate the pledge.

The Nassau sportsmanship bill will not become law unless the county executive, Thomas Suozzi, signs it. If he does, the law will take effect this spring.

The Right Way to Play

Supporters of the bill say young people who regularly see professional athletes showboating and talking trash on television need to learn the right way to play the game. “Kids see college players and pros do the chicken dance after scoring a touchdown, and there is no penalty,” Andrew Herman of the Baldwin (N.Y.) school district said at a hearing on Nassau’s bill. “This legislation tells people you are serious about good sportsmanship.”

The bill’s sponsor says the law is about educating families, not penalizing players. “We are not trying to enforce or regulate conduct here,” said legislator David Denenberg. “But we are trying to educate people about sportsmanship. This is the best way to do that.”

A Foul Law

Critics of the law say that celebrating victories and great plays is a natural part of any game and shouldn’t be outlawed by any legislature. In an editorial opposing the bill, New York newspaper Newsday compared a law enforcing good sportsmanship to laws trying to make people more polite. “You can’t mandate that Nassau residents bid cheery good mornings to their neighbors, for example, any more than you can force them to open doors for people on crutches or pull kites out of trees for little boys next door,” said the editorial.

Others don’t believe that the legislature should concern itself with a relatively minor problem. “We have some real problems. The parks department can’t keep up fields, and we are doing this?” asked legislator Richard Nicolello, who voted against the bill. “I can’t support this.”

What’s your opinion? Should players and parents be required by law to be good sports? Why or why not?

Get Talking

Ask students: What is sportsmanship? What are some examples of good sportsmanship and bad sportsmanship? Why is it important to be a good sport? Should young athletes have to sign a pledge that requires them to be good sports? Ask students what should be included in such a pledge.

Fast Facts

* Cities across the country have instituted other measures aimed at ensuring civility at athletic contests. For example, Scarsdale, N.Y. banned booing, taunts and other verbal attacks at games last year.

* Suffolk County, N.Y. is considering a ban on any criticism on the playing field and requiring suspensions of players and parents who act out during a game.

* In California, the Positive Coaching Alliance holds workshops for coaches to stress that being a positive role model is more important than winning.

* In El Paso, Texas, more than 800 parents went to mandatory sportsmanship training last year.

* The Northern Ohio Girls Soccer League began a Silent Sunday two years ago that required parents to keep their cheers and criticisms to themselves one game a season.

Doing More

Ask students to look at the sports sections of several newspapers. Have them clip examples of both good and poor sportsmanship. Ask students to discuss whether the behavior of professional athletes influences young athletes.

On their marks, ready, and going for power: Specialized performance sports training is all the rage for children wanting an edge

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LONDON, ONT. — Megan MacKenzie pulls booties over her lilac sneakers and glides back and forth, goalie style, on a slippery board. An attentive coach sways with her, nodding at her form as she works her groin muscles.

At the other side of a gym loaded with top-notch equipment, Megan’s proud mother watches intently.

“She wanted, I guess, an edge,” Darlene MacKenzie said before her daughter’s workout.

“Just to up my level of training,” added the petite, dark-eyed 12-year-old. “Just that extra little speed or strength or power is often the difference in coming first or second.”

Megan, a black-belt karate champion whose parents spent $45,000 so she could compete across North America last year, is not here at Velocity Sports Performance to hone her kicks. Instead, she’s learning speed at this fast-growing U.S. chain that opened its first Canadian location in London, Ont., in October and is the epitome of the trend toward professionalizing children’s sports.

Where kids once whiled away their weekends playing shinny on the neighbourhood pond and dribbling basketballs on the driveway, they are increasingly being ferried to specialized after-school lessons by parents eager for that elusive edge.

Complete with elite training equipment — including a laser timer, motion-analysis software and Olympic weightlifting platforms — this child-centred facility fills a niche created by little athletes with big dreams, their deep-pocketed parents and cutbacks in school physical-education programs.

school-programWith its oft-repeated mantra of “Speed Power Agility,” Velocity’s focus — guarantee, even — is turning kids, from the competitive to the chubby, into speed demons.

“The single biggest factor that determines whether an athlete is going to get playing time or rides the bench is how fast they are,” said Loren Seagrave, a former coach of Canadian sprinters Donovan Bailey and Ben Johnson who founded Velocity in 1999 and holds the title of chief performance officer.

But do kids need tutoring in running, jumping and push-ups?

kid-running-tutorRobert Bettauer, president and CEO of the Canadian Sport Centre Ontario, says that young athletes already get the instruction they require and that over-training risks forever turning them off physical activity.

“I’m not sure it’s necessary,” said the former championship tennis player and Olympic coach. “I’m not sure you have to break the bank to get that leg up because I think the existing system provides enough opportunity for the truly gifted, outstanding athletes to manifest themselves.”

On Thursday evening, about 60 kids, ranging in age from 8 to 18, arrive at the parking lot of a strip mall in northwest London. Some parents drop their young charges off, others come in to watch, removing their shoes to protect the rubber floor. Lugging gym bags, the youngsters swing open the glass door to the large training room and turn left to the locker rooms, where they change into their workout wear. Their parents are left behind in a small lounge, where they monitor their child’s progress through a wall of glass.

At Velocity Sports Performance, which also takes adult clients, children like Megan are called “athletes,” no matter their skill level. Their training is serious business with no time for horseplay or standing around. Clutching white forms outlining their exercise regimen, kids receive instruction in small groups under the watchful eye of an experienced coach. Children aged eight to 11 get an hour; the older ones stay for 90 minutes. A three-month package of twice-weekly sessions for the older kids costs $750, or almost $21 an hour.

Garret Austin, a mop-topped 14-year-old who plays hockey, soccer and tennis, is in the first after-school group, arriving shortly before 4 o’clock with his father, Gary. Garrett is here to compensate for an end-of-year birthday that makes him younger and skinnier than his peers.

“When you’re small and having the birth disadvantage, any physical improvement could really help,” Mr. Austin said, sitting in Velocity’s small boardroom.

On the 60-yard (55-metre) Mondo track, on the 25 yards (23 metres) of Astroturf, at the professional weights, Garret is the keener in his four-person group. He runs fastest, has the best form and holds his position the longest.

It seems to be working. At the Monday hockey practices after Garret’s Thursday sessions, Mr. Austin says he witnesses the fruits of his son’s labour. “You really see a big difference in overall speed and strength.”

But will specialized training provided by organizations like Velocity help produce more and better Olympians, National Hockey League stars and martial artists?

“Boy, that’s a hard prediction, isn’t it?” said Phil Campagna, a kinesiology professor at Dalhousie University and a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute.

“The concept is there, and theoretically it should,” he said. “I just worry: Is it something that children will want to do and have fun at or will they . . . become turned off sport? There’s that fine line there.”

Prof. Campagna and Mr. Bettauer, the former tennis player and coach, worry that overzealous parents are pushing their kids to train like the pros, and that the initiative is not the child’s.

But Alethea Grigg, the president of the Velocity facility in London — who plans to expand the franchise in Southwestern Ontario — said none of the 900 children who have flocked to her centre have been press to go.

“Kids are coming because they want to come,” she said.

No matter what the motivation, Mr. Bettauer worries the drive toward greatness at ever-earlier ages will have the unintended consequence of deterring kids from physical activity.

He offers the example of Martina Hingis, a tennis prodigy who, at age 16, became the youngest player to be crowned No. 1 in the world. But in 2002, at 22, she withdrew from competition because of injuries and difficulties handling the rigours of the professional tour.

“Maybe if she’d matured a little more slowly and had some time to physically become stronger, she’d still be playing,” Mr. Bettauer said. “It’s a maybe, but I don’t think the world of tennis is better for the fact that she’s already done.”

It’s not boo, hiss – just plain Boo

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When sports at higher levels does not seem as much fun as it used to be, it helps to watch the unbridled enthusiasm of children playing the sport their heroes play. A youth football game provides the enjoyment of the sport in its purest form.

football-gameBecause we’re suckers for a ballgame, we stopped when we heard the racket.

It was just after 7 o’clock, that lovely time of an autumn evening a few minutes before sundown, the sky a burnt orange, the clouds still and soft. From somewhere we could hear bells tolling the hour the way they do from courthouse towers in small Southern towns.

The racket was a kids’ football game, the best kind of football there is.

Little guys in orange shirts ran against little guys in green shirts. They were 8, maybe 10. Their little faces were shadows in the deep recesses of their helmets. The shoulder pads reached out wide, like Darth Vader’s armor, and their skinny little bodies were stick figures.

The little guys had all the moves. They knew about low-fives and they knew about butting helmets in celebration. One mite of a running back spiked the ball in the end zone (but needed both hands to do it). These were little guys trying their darnedest to be big guys.

The night was quiet, and by 9 o’clock a full moon floated behind the clouds. We heard a train whistle on the night air, the whistle coming from a slow freight train groaning through town on tracks two blocks east of the courthouse. We stood in the grass behind one end zone, leaning on a chain link fence near an old brick gymnasium that has its doors open to the town’s children every night. Folks sat on the ground and on their car trunks and on lawn chairs in the backs of pickup trucks.

From the end zone we couldn’t tell much about what was happening. The little guys in orange shirts would all run one way, whereupon the green shirts would chase them, and soon enough everyone fell down in a great bony heap of ankles and elbows and boys making memories.

If he eats his spinach, little No. 64 in the green might grow up to be a defensive end. No. 11, the orange quarterback, hurt his wrist but caught a touchdown pass on a tricky throw-back play that befuddled the green people. At halftime, orange No. 22’s mother headed onto the field to see her son (he’d been shaken up), but he saw her coming and waved her off: “I’m OK, Mama.” She smiled at that and went back to where she belonged.

When we moved from the end zone to a seat in the bleachers, we learned that orange No. 22’s name was Boo. He was 8. He wore a white neck-roll under his Darth Vader shoulder pads. His baggy pants reached to his ankles and on his feet he wore white cleats so small they looked like doll’s shoes (not that anyone would tell him that). He might have been 4 feet tall. As to what he weighed, he said, “Sixty pounds!”

“Oh, Boo,” his mother said. “You don’t weigh any 60 pounds. Tell the man right.”

“Sixty pounds!”

Here Boo arranged his little face into what he presumed to be a big guy’s scowl. So his mother said, “Maybe you’ve grown since last night.”

Soon enough, the orange shirts scored a touchdown and there came a commotion from the bleachers. There were three sections of bleachers filled with a few dozen parents, friends and children on the lam from schoolwork. We looked over that way and saw that the commotion was stirred up by cheerleaders – and not just four or five cheerleaders, but 17 cheerleaders in orange shoes and orange pleated skirts with orange ribbons in their hair.

Seventeen! Every little girl beautiful on this beautiful night at a little town’s ballpark. Quickly, we counted the football players in orange shirts and discovered that the players outnumbered the cheerleaders only 19 to 17. The same numbers obtained on the green-shirted side. And as we considered these examples of gender equity, we met a man with divided loyalties.

“I’ve got a girl on each cheerleading squad tonight,” he said, and he added seriously, They take it seriously.” The girls practice two or three times a week, he said. Our favorite cheer was one that went, “Yea, Broncos! Beat their pants off!”

At least, that’s the way we heard it. A woman in the bleachers disagreed. She said, “No, no. They’re saying, `Beat the Panthers.’” Oh.

We spoke to the parents of an offensive lineman. “Our boy’s the chubby one,” the father said. “This is only his third or fourth game. It’s a learning process for him because he’s always been bigger than other kids, and I’ve told him to be careful of them. So he’s timid.”

playing-football

The mother said, “I love him playing football. I wanted him to get the exercise. He’s such a fat guy, almost 125 pounds, he sweats up a storm. The problem is, he’s very artistic. He’d lay on the floor all day drawing. But I made him play football and the other day he said, Mama, remember your promise? If I don’t like it, I don’t have to play next year.’ That’s right.”

Orange No. 22, the 60-pound wonder named Boo, is more enthusiastic about football, mainly because he likes the idea of scoring touchdowns. “Yup,” he said. His mother said football is fine, as long as it doesn’t detract from school and he doesn’t get hurt. “He came home from practice the first time and said his arms hurt,” she said. “So I got him some pads for his arms. The second day, he got hit in the jaw and wanted to know if I could get him some jaw pads.”

Boo, like a lot of the little guys, had his pants taped on. Like the helmet and the shoulder pads, the pants sometimes are too big for the little guys. So they wrap tape around their waists. Because the tape doesn’t always work, we saw things in this little Southern town’s ballpark that we seldom see in the stately pleasure domes of professional football.

On this night, one play in particular lost precision and gained charm when the chubby artist/lineman, No. 51 in the orange, had to run interference on a sweep and tug up the droopy seat of his drawers at the same time.