Trees in the park are posted with signs saying "Don't climb." Signs at the poolside say "No diving." No matter which way they turn, city kids are increasingly pressured to restrain their naturally rambunctious tendencies. While kids no longer have the wide open spaces that previous generations enjoyed, some children now log impressive achievements in competitive sports. Many athletes capable of performing incredible feats of derring-do look barely old enough to blow their own noses. Questions come to mind. How do they train? How much time do they spend on it? How much money? Do they get injured? Is this a good way to foster a child's overall physical development?
It's Saturday evening. A rumbling electric generator powers two light standards on the grounds of Tunhua Junior High School in Taipei. Though the lights are quite bright, they do not fully illuminate the huge school grounds. Students flash across the grounds on in-line skates, cutting circles and performing acrobatic maneuvers.
"Jump! Switch your feet! Raise your foot! Good! Good. . . . Next!" Skating instructor Lin Jaw-fan barks out instructions non-stop. The kids respond, tracing beautiful figures across the iceless "ice rink."
Taking up the challenge
Chang Chiung-wen flits as gracefully as a swallow past her watching mother. Although she won't finish skating practice until almost 10:00 p.m., Chiung-wen and her mother will have to get up early tomorrow morning and go with her coach to Taichung to get in some work on real ice. A fourth-grade elementary student, Chiung-wen has already been hard at work on her skating for four years. In her young heart, she longs to become the next Michelle Kwan, the Chinese-American champion.
Late last year, the Chinese Taipei Skating Union led a group of skaters from Taiwan to Indonesia, where they participated in an international skating competition in Jakarta. Almost everyone came home with a medal. The youngest of them all, Chien Wei-yao, returned home with gold medals in two eight-and-under events, figure skating and speed skating. In late February, the Skating Union took advantage of the enthusiasm generated by the winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan to hold Taiwan's first international skating competition. Some 200 participants competed, half of whom were of junior high school age or younger.
Chiang Yi-hsuan is a gold medalist in gymnastics, her tender young age notwithstanding. The second-grade elementary school student scored a perfect ten in the floor exercises last January at the Jinwen Cup national gymnastics competition.
The gold medal and perfect score don't change the fact that Yi-hsuan is still very much a child. In the children's gymnastics class run by Chuang Hung-sen, she jumps happily up and down on the trampoline together with a kindergartner named Huang Chien-jung, sometimes pretending to be a koala bear, sometimes jumping playfully on her coach's back. She won't be able to practice much longer in this gymnastics class, though, because it is in the basement of a large building. As the growing Yi-hsuan begins to jump higher and tumble farther, she will need to practice at a real gymnastics facility.
The all-conquering kids
Physical education class at school is how most kids in Taiwan get involved in sports. School teams are the training grounds from which serious competitors emerge.
The most popular school sports are track and field, baseball, dodge ball, and table tennis. The popularity of gymnastics, skating, and diving has also risen rapidly in recent years. In these latter sports, small and supple competitors have an especially good chance to excel, and peak performances tend to come at a relatively young age. Once a competitor matures, it becomes more difficult to acquire or maintain a high level of skill. That is why most competitors in these sports begin training very young. Most top athletes are in their teens.
Rich Lee, secretary general of the Chinese Taipei Skating Union, believes that televised coverage of recent skating competitions will kindle enthusiasm for the sport, especially because of the outstanding success of Michelle Kwan and China's Chen Lu.
Although Taiwan has been involved in these sports for many years now, progress has been limited. Chan Chen-fu, coach of the Chinese Taipei gymnastics team, says that when he was a member of the national team about 30 years ago, everyone had to practice on grass or in a sand pit. Proper gymnastics facilities were simply nowhere to be found. Back then, anyone who was a bit older and could muster a more or less passable performance was a teacher. There were no professional coaches at all. Today, however, more and more people are participating in competitive gymnastics each year, and gold medal contenders at the Jinwen Cup now come from all parts of Taiwan. The same situation holds true in skating and diving.
The gifted few
There once was a time when most parents wanted their children to concentrate solely on their studies, and would forbid them to join school sports teams. The situation is vastly different today. In fact, many of the children who now participate in competitive sports were originally dragged off reluctantly to the coach or a sports school by their parents. According to Yan Wu-chi, of the Chinese Taipei Gymnastic Association, sports schools and clubs that specialize in a single sport are very common abroad, but they are only just beginning to appear in Taiwan.
Chuang Hung-sen, a member of Taiwan's older generation of gymnasts, has opened a private gymnastics school. In addition to helping children develop coordination, he also teaches children a few basic gymnastic movements. He says that in seven or eight years, he has only run across two or three youngsters who were both willing and able to work at the sport. Although many kids have enrolled in his classes, he emphasizes that "the talent has to be there in the first place. It's not something you can teach." His pupil Chiang Yi-hsuan is one of those rare few. Although it is important to have the proper physique and an instinctive grasp of the fundamentals, determination and an ability to sustain one's interest level are the key factors that decide whether a child will become a successful competitor. Shihchuan Elementary School gymnastics coach Liang Mei-sung has 10 or 20 students practicing right now in his gym. The oldest go about their routine with unbroken concentration. Kids in the medium or younger age range, though, can be seen playing on the horizontal bars like a troupe of carefree monkeys. This is because most coaches don't demand too much of the youngest students, otherwise the kids might shy away from gymnastics. Instead, coaches let them play to their heart's content so they can gradually develop an interest in the sport.
Diving is another sport with many competitors of a very tender age. Lee Tung Shing, secretary of the Chinese Taipei Amateur Swimming Association, says that young children just getting started do little more than play around in the pool in order to get comfortable in the water. Only then can they learn to swim properly and move on to practice diving.
As they grow older and begin learning more difficult techniques, play gradually gives way to serious work. According to Liang Mei-sung, "When you practice at any sport, there is a lot of hard work involved." When practicing a competitive sport, pressure is inevitable. How does one allow children to feel the pressure without discouraging them? A coach must exercise a certain degree of authority, but different coaches have their own methods.
Chuang Hung-sen is a gentle man who has trouble putting on a gruff air. When Chiang Yi-hsuan threatens to throw a temper tantrum or becomes reluctant to try a certain technique, Chuang sometimes whips out a cage full of preying mantises. As soon as his star pupil sees the insects, she plucks up her courage and overcomes the challenge. Sometimes when Yi-hsuan has done poorly, Coach Chuang will jokingly tell her that she has been hopping around like a toad. For Yi-hsuan, who takes pride in her appearance, that is enough to bring out her best effort. According to Huang Yung-kuan, a specialist in children's physical education and a lecturer for the physical education department at Fu Jen Catholic University, a child who has overcome a difficult challenge will often practice with complete concentration and not feel tired until after the practice session is over.
If you fall, do it gracefully
The pressure of competitive sports is felt not only during practice, but also in personal rivalry. According to Huang Yung-kuan, young newcomers to a sport are less concerned about overall rankings than about whether they've beaten the people they are familiar with. A child will sometimes break out crying when he or she is the only one in the group without a medal. Liang Mei-sung once asked the organizers of an event for two extra medals so that everybody could have one.
Even when they lose, though, children don't often take it to heart. One time when Chiang Yi-hsuan took part in a gymnastics meet, she jumped too high on her first jump in the floor exercise. She lost her rhythm and simply stood transfixed until the music came to an end. She wailed in anguish immediately afterward, but her father said that it wasn't long before she was playing happily with the other children. Chang Chiung-wen's mother also recalls her daughter's first skating competition. Before the event, Chiung-wen worried continually about whether she would fall on the ice. Her mother told her, "It doesn't matter if your fall. Just get right back up. If you fall, try to do it as gracefully as you can." As it turned out, Chiung-wen did indeed fall. When her program was over, she raced back and asked her coach excitedly, "Did I fall gracefully?"
Huang Yung-kuan argues that for children, winning and losing are not the most important aspects of competition. What matters most to them is to receive the applause and cheers of the audience, and to feel like they've performed a heroic feat, just like the stars they idolize. Furthermore, competition gives children the chance to fulfill the desire to perform. Skating instructor Lin Jaw-fan says skating is a performing art. Competitors must use their skating skills to interpret a piece of music. They could, for example, turn it into a ballet, a modern jazz dance, an aerobic dance rhythm, or a folk dance. For coach Lin, an athlete in any sport at all is a stage performer, even a sprinter hurtling down the track.
As time goes by, young athletes gradually gain a deeper understanding of what competitive sports are all about. They slowly learn to observe the rules; to remain humble in victory, undiscouraged in defeat; and sometimes even to set their sights upon a career in sports. Chen Ting, who returned to Taiwan from the United States to further her skating career, has been training for five years now. In the US, she had received level 5 accreditation from the Ice Skating Institution of America. According to her mother, "she often practices without a break for ten hours in a row." Even after her poorly fitting skates had rubbed her skin raw, she still took part in the international skating competition held in Taiwan in late February. Besides practicing skating, Chen also attends yoga and dance classes every week to polish her performance on the ice. Chiang Yi-hsuan, a second-grader, often rubs her little hands raw on the gymnastics bars, but she remains undeterred. According to her father, she often says: "I want to make the national team by sixth grade."
The parental factor
So why do some children settle on a particular sport earlier than most? "In every case," says Huang Yung-kuan, "there is someone in their life who is involved in that sport."
Chang Chiung-wen became interested in skating after picking up her older brother's skates. At the Tsoying National Sports Training Center's diving pool, one often finds the two sons of national diving coach Thomas Chen. The older brother is only in second grade, and the younger is still in kindergarten, but the older boys and girls around the pool couldn't teach them a thing to improve their diving form.
Wang Min-nan, director of the physical education department at National Taitung Teachers College, points out that research carried out abroad shows that 70% of all eight-year-olds decide on their own what sports they want to participate in. If their parents are opposed, however, it is almost impossible for children to attend sports schools or join school teams. Liang Mei-sung says that the first thing he does in recruiting athletes is to issue a parental consent form. Out of 40 forms, usually no more than ten come back signed.
Many parents do not want their children to concentrate too heavily on sports. Even when children have already emerged as star performers, they often have to fight major battles with their parents in order to continue with their sport. Wang Yi-wen is a student under Liang Mei-sung, who is known for driving his proteges extremely hard. Even so, Yi-wen has never once thought of quitting. Her biggest hurdle is the opposition of her parents. Her father feels that there is no future in sports, and has always been strongly opposed to her sports activities. He still does not support her in her desire to participate in gymnastics. Her mother stands up for her, however, and has engaged in countless arguments with her father over the matter. Yi-wen has not disappointed her mother, either. She has already obtained the credentials necessary to become a coach, and the fighting spirit developed in gymnastics is standing her in good stead as she prepares for her university entrance examinations.
Chen Ting's father once threw her skates angrily to the floor, and he even told her, "You'll never succeed." With the complete support of her mother, however, Chen Ting is shooting to become a world-class skater. "Our goal at this point is for her to be good enough for the world junior championships by the time she reaches age twelve, even though the youngest age level for this competition is 14."
Regardless of whether they support or oppose their children's sports activities, all parents want their children to succeed in life. Their basic goal is not so different; the disagreement is only about how that goal is to be achieved. It costs a lot, however, to hire coaches and buy equipment. Most children who participate in sports can do so only with the support of their parents. Although Chiang Yi-hsuan lives in Taoyuan, she practices in Taipei at least three times a week, and each trip to Taipei involves the entire family. Chang Chiung-wen's mother takes her to skating and dance classes every week, and drives her from Taipei to Taichung to practice on the ice. She laughs, "I'm running myself ragged." Skates cost NT$20,000, and Chiung-wen will soon be needing her fourth pair. Then there is the money spent on coaches, facilities, transportation, and more. "Some people say you have to go bankrupt to turn out a world-class skater." Even so, Chiung-wen's mother supports her daughter 100%. Some parents have been known to organize sponsorship committees to draw on a wider base of support. At Shihchuan Elementary School, parents pooled their funds to buy a vehicle for the gymnastics team so the coach could take the children from Kaohsiung to practice at Tsoying National Sports Training Center.
Commander of the kids' brigade
When it comes to development of athletic skills, the parents, the child, and the coach all have key roles to play. Parents must develop a rapport with the coach, and the coach must slowly gain a child's complete trust. Once this trust has been established, you can see it in the way the child relates to the coach.
Chang Chiung-wen actually calls her coach "Pop." Lin Jaw-fan, the men's figure skating champion in the first CKS Cup held back in the 1970s, has not lost a bit of his enthusiasm for skating in more than 20 years as a coach. When the team went to Indonesia earlier this year for the international competition in Jakarta, 42-year-old Chiang donned his skates and came away with the gold medal in the adult men's class five figure skating category. Ice rinks are a rare commodity in Taiwan. Yuanshan ice rink and Chin Wan-nian ice rink have opened, closed, and re-opened more times than one would care to count. Even when there is no ice rink to be had, though, he rents facilities all around Taiwan so he can carry out practice using in-line skates. Many parents have had to run the length and breadth of Taiwan to keep up with the peripatetic coach and his young disciples. Says Chang Chiung-wen's mother, "I have been deeply impressed by Coach Lin."
When gymnastics coach Liang Mei-sung took in his first group of third-grade students, Wang Yi-wen joined in spite of her family's opposition. As she progressed under the careful tutelage of her coach, Yi-wen's determination to keep going grew stronger. Yi-wen's mother, who had originally been against her daughter's pursuit of gymnastics, says that coach Liang has gone far out of his way over the course of eight years to look after her daughter. He used to shuttle her back and forth every day between school and the gym, and has always kept a close eye on her homework and behavior. When it came time to enter junior high school, he took great pains to find one where Yi-wen would be able to practice her gymnastics. He did the same when senior high school rolled around.
Says Yi-wen's mother, "At first we wondered how in the world coach Liang could command such loyalty from the kids, but now that we understand how much he cares, we've come to have complete faith in him. All of us parents even got together once and warned him that our kids would all pull out of gymnastics if he quit coaching." Although coach Liang jokingly says that he has only been trying to avoid becoming a laughingstock, he cannot hide the pride he feels for the gymnasts who have matured under his guidance.
School work has been the main cause of disputes between some parents and coach Liang over the years. Liang says that a lot of children drop out when they reach third grade or when it comes time to enter junior high. However, he also says: "Even though lots of parents refuse to let their kids continue with sports because they don't want school work to suffer, the fact is, lots of kids don't do any better in school after quitting sports."
Yan Wu-chi, of the Chinese Taipei Gymnastic Association, points out that athletes such as gymnasts and skaters need good reactions and considerable intelligence, because they must learn to perform acrobatic feats while suspended for the briefest of moments in mid-air. To achieve what they do, they have to practice over and over, continually adjusting their style. Rich Lee, secretary general of the Chinese Taipei Skating Union, points to the academic success of many Chinese athletes. Chen Ting, with an IQ of 148, has received an education award from US President Bill Clinton. Li Po-ling, who has represented Chinese Taipei in the winter Olympics, is now a doctoral candidate at Stanford University.
The debate over whether sports have a detrimental effect on school work continues, and each side is sticking to its guns. Wang Min-nan acknowledges that the connection between physical and intellectual competence so often mentioned by persons involved in physical education has not been proven. In fact, Wang Yi-wen's mother says that her daughter is always so tired after gymnastics practice that she has trouble keeping awake when she does her homework. In Taiwan, where top priority has always been placed on academic success, many young athletes who shoot for the top in sports have to deal with pressure on two fronts.
Some parents worry that involvement in sports will hinder a child's normal physical development. According to Huang Yung-kuan, competitive sports can indeed affect a child's physical maturation because they require long hours of practice and always put stress on basically the same parts of the body. Furthermore, excessive or intense practice is bound to result in sports injuries from time to time. Liang Mei-sung's gymnastics team once had three members in casts at the same time.
A lifelong passion
Wang Min-nan states: "There is no consensus concerning how much a child is affected by early involvement in sports. It's different for every sport." He goes on to point out, however, that getting an early start does not guarantee that a child will become a standout performer. Lee Tung Shing points out that the F嶮廨ation Internationale de Natation Amateure (FINA) has changed the lowest age category in international swimming events from 10 to 11-and-12 to discourage adults from forcing kids to get deeply involved too soon.
Also, a child who chooses at an early age to concentrate on a particular sport inevitably misses out on chances to experience other sports. Wang Min-nan emphasizes that the most important thing in children's sports is participation. For example, says Wang, "Adults shouldn't just pick out the best athletes to participate in children's sports events. Children should be allowed to participate in whatever they want to. Only then can every child have a chance to experience the exhilaration of sports."
Nevertheless, the focused few who specialize from an early age do play a needed role. Although it is true that they forego opportunities to participate in other sports, nevertheless, in pushing to achieve new heights they garner success which increases overall interest in sports. There are thus reasons for and against serious commitment to sports from an early age. Many competitors feel frequent doubts about whether they should continue, and each person is faced with a unique set of circumstances. What is certain, however, is that in sports in which children excel, an athlete reaches his or her prime at a very early age. A skater usually peaks around age 17 or 18, while a diver may peak sometime between the ages of 13 and 20. Chiang Yi-hsuan's father says he doesn't put any pressure on her for precisely that reason. He worries that too much pressure could be counterproductive, and besides, "You've still got your life ahead of you at age 18."
Some parents put an enormous investment of time and money into their children's sports activities. Some even plan out their children's goals and career paths for 10 or 20 years into the future. For other parents, the most important thing is to give their child emotional support. As children race down a road that has been laid out in front of them, striving to meet their own goals or, perhaps, to satisfy their parents' expectations, they often discover along the way that the road, though long and hard, has a fascination of its own. Therein lies the charm of sports. As for the future, Wang Yi-wen hopes to take advantage of her gymnastics skills to gain admission to a university physical education department. Someone like Chiang Yi-hsuan, on the other hand, may choose a different route. No matter what path they finally follow, though, their childhood memories will not be limited to books and tests. Once upon a time, they will recall, they were athletes in the spotlight.
After four years of hard training, Chang Chiung-wen has matured into a skilled and graceful skater. Competitors of her age are gradually rising to the top in such sports as skating, gymnastics, and diving. (photo by Cheng Lu-chung)
The Shihchuan Elementary School gymnastics teams has amassed an impressive collection of trophies over the years.
Coaches stress the importance of allowing children to treat a sport as play so they can develop an interest in it.
As young children take up training, older peers play an important role by encouraging and looking after them.
Arms and legs extended in a graceful mid-air dance-the result of long practice.
To develop a steady and coordinated performance on the balance beam, an athlete must first fall off countless times.
A child lounges around after tiring herself out on the trampoline. Her coach decides to give her a break.
"Yi-hsuan has always been an extremely active child, so gymnastics was just the thing for her." No sooner said than Yi-hsuan jumps like a monkey onto her father's back. Any child athlete who goes far in sports needs the complete support of at least one parent. A child's sports ambitions are a challenge for the parents, too.
Coaches pay attention not only to training, but also to a child's behavior and emotional well-being. As soon as they arrive at the gym, members of the Shihchuan Elementary School gymnastics team have to sweep and clean up the gym.
Not every child who starts training at a young age will necessarily develop into a star performer, but memories of their days in athletics will stay with them all their lives.