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Thursday July 24 2014
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Growing Into It

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When 6-foot-5 former Penn State volleyball star Blair Brown went club-hopping a while back with 6-4 Nebraska All-American Brooke Delano and three other very tall young women, they weren’t exactly shy about their height.

All five wore three-inch heels.


“We would have worn six-inch heels if we had them,” Delano said with a laugh. “We got some comments about our long legs, and we loved it.”


But not every girl has the confidence displayed by Brown, Delano and their buddies.


Ryan Mitchell, who coaches defending state champion Lovejoy High in Lucas, Texas, has seen a certain body language on some of his volleyball players - and it’s not good.


“Tall girls tend to slump their shoulders - almost ashamed,” said Mitchell. “In middle school, they seem like they’re twice the size of every boy on campus. It’s tough socially, but that’s where their parents come in.”


Actually, parents and coaches share in the responsibility in building the girls’ self-esteem, according to Dr. Aimee Kimball, director of mental training for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.


“Coaches spend a lot of time with these girls and have big roles in their lives,” Kimball said. “It’s important to develop the whole person, not just the volleyball player.


“Growth spurts can be difficult psychologically because most kids would rather fit in than stand out. But if they have the right support system, they can learn that there are advantages to being taller, faster and stronger.


“Kids have to be able to embrace how they look. You cannot change your height. You are who you are.”


And who we are, in a word, is taller. According to a study by the Center For Disease Control, women, on average, have gotten an inch taller over the past 50 years, growing from 5-3 to 5-4. Men have also gotten taller, from 5-8 to 5-9½.


But because girls start puberty at a younger age, it is not uncommon for middle-school girls to be taller than their male counterparts.


Girls, on average, grow 2.5 to 4.5 inches per year during puberty. A girl is usually done growing between ages 13 and 15. Compared to boys, a girl’s growth spurt starts earlier and is more aggressive but is not as prolonged.


There are many girls, however, who have defied those statistics.


Sarah Burrington, a 6-5 incoming freshman at Florida State, is an example of a girl whose height rocketed past most of her classmates.


“I learned to embrace the awkward moments with a confident demeanor,” said Burrington. “I know my height is an asset.”


Because of her height, most people usually think Burrington is older than her actual age. That creates another positive, she said, because it forces her to act in a more mature way to live up to the perception that she is older.


Jordan Burgess, a 6-0 outside hitter who will play for Stanford this fall, isn’t quite as tall as Burrington, but she agreed that attitude is key to dealing with your size.


“There are positives and negatives to being tall,” Burgess said. “There might be times when it’s awkward at a dance or certain situations. But I just focus on the advantages it’s given me… don’t worry about the negatives.”


Brown, who won four national titles at Penn State, is also an exception to the rule that girls stop growing by age 15. Brown was 6-foot tall at 14, grew a couple inches in high school and a couple more in college.


Socially, Brown said she never had a problem. Like Delano, Burrington and Burgess, she comes from a tall family and has always been proud of her height.


Brown never dated much in high school, preferring to focus on academics, volleyball and hanging out with friends. But now that she has graduated from PSU and just finished her first year as a professional volleyball player in Pavia, Italy, she is engaged to 6-8 Max Lipsitz, another ex-Penn State star.


“I never felt odd in my own skin,” Brown said. “People come up to me every day and say they wish they were my height. I think tall girls need to realize that their height is to be envied.


“And if socially they find it’s a struggle at first, don’t get discouraged. It will get better.”     


Dr. Tanya Hagen, who specializes in sports medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said joining a team is self-preservation for some kids. 


“That’s why some kids find themselves in athletics – it’s using your height to your advantage and gaining acceptance and confidence,” Hagen said. “Instead of, ‘Oh, that’s the weird, lanky girl’ you might hear: ‘Oh, that’s thcollegian.psu.edue sports star.’ “


Kimball, though, said parents have to be careful that their children are not feeling forced to compete in a sport just because of their height.


“If they don’t have the desire or talent to compete in that particular sport,” Kimball said, “that could end up hurting their confidence.”

I was in a minor league press box in Charlotte, NC, last month, taking in one of Gregory Polanco’s final triple-A games. A colleague, upon learning I was from Pittsburgh, approached me with a question.
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