Participation Benefits of Youth Sports
A professor of mine once asked us to ponder the question, “Does sport build character or characters?” The answer is – it depends upon the program and largely upon the coach. Unfortunately, it seems that many parents all over the US have blindly accepted this widely propagated assumption that sport builds character, offering their precious, impressionable offspring at younger and younger ages, season after season, to the system that is supposed to teach cooperation, discipline, sportsmanship and social skills. This unquestioning faith we seem to have put in our youth sports system may be doing our youngsters more harm than good. It is important that we examine the youth sports programs in which our children participate and identify the benefits and the risks of participation in those programs. We can then come up with strategies to extinguish policies and procedures that are not beneficial and discover how to accentuate the benefits of sport participation.
So what are the good parts?
When youth sports programs are run with the needs and best interests of the participants in mind, there are many potential positive outcomes. Here is a list of a few:
Youth sports can be a fun and enjoyable experience for all involved. Surveys have shown that having fun is a primary reason why children are motivated to participate in sports (1).
Sports provide an arena for youth to be physically active (2, 3). We are all probably well aware of the obesity epidemic occurring today and the need to emphasize health and fitness in children. Studies have found that children who play sports spend less time in sedentary pursuits, such as television watching (4), and this can translate to a healthier lifestyle both now and in the future (2).
Being physically active provides important health benefits. Children who are more active will have a better body composition (less body fat), stronger bones, greater muscular strength, and better endurance. Physical activity has also been linked to lessening symptoms of depression and anxiety. It is important to know that in terms of health benefits, it may be necessary for a child to participate continually in one sport each sports season to see physical fitness benefits over youth participating in sports in one or no sports seasons each year (5-7)
Participation gives youth the opportunity to learn a variety of motor and sports-related skills such as running, jumping, kicking, throwing, etc. (1, 2).
An enjoyable experience in sports as a youth can lead to lifetime participation in sports and lead to an active lifestyle as an adult (2).
When a child is both psychologically and physically ready to participate, sports participation can give the child an opportunity to develop self-competence in their skills, self-esteem, and moral competence (2).
Sports provide an opportunity to learn social skills and make friends (2).
Participation gives participants the opportunity to experience the challenge of competition (1).
Team sports give youth a chance to feel part of a team or be affiliated with a team (1).
Sport participation may be a deterrent for delinquent behaviors (3).
There is the potential that sports provide a forum for moral development, although this claim has not been backed up by evidence (8).
What are areas needing change?
Professor Daryl Siedentop (9) says, “Sport can have positive effects on both adolescents and adults. But sport experiences can also be devastatingly injurious to young people, physically, psychologically, and emotionally, if handled irresponsibly” (p. 137). Unfortunately, the reality is that the current youth sports environment is structured in such a way that there is the possibility for physical, psychological and emotional harm to come to participants. It will take active, involved, and dedicated parents, coaches and administrators to change this. Following is a list of risks/areas of improvement for youth sports.
Programs are frequently not developmentally appropriate (9). Many of the youth programs are merely mini versions of elite adult sports. All involved with youth sports need to realize that children are not mini adults, and their needs are much different. Simply providing sports programs that mimic adult sports can set our children up for a frustrating experience. I know of one program that required its 4-yr. old basketball players to shoot on 10-foot baskets! What 4-yr. old is going to be regularly able to make a shot on a 10-foot basket? Kids like to experience success, and all that did was set them up for failure.
Children are entering the world of competitive sports before they are psychologically, and sometimes physically, ready (9). Prevailing opinion seems to feel that the earlier a child is put into sports, the better chance a child has at succeeding in sports. Most children are probably really not ready to participate in competitive sports until around age 8 (9). For more on this discussion, check out Readiness.
The majority of coaches are volunteers who lack any type of training in how to teach and deal with youth. Untrained coaches, and some trained ones too, do not know how to provide proper feedback, help athletes develop proper attributions for failure, know how to structure a developmentally appropriate practice session, or know how to help children develop intrinsic motivation to participate. Many have a win-at-all-costs mentality, and the less-skilled players get hurt when this is the case. A child’s self-esteem and self-efficacy can be harmed in this situation, and they may choose instead to avoid physical activity.
Specialization (9). Not only are children encouraged to pick just one sport to participate in year-round, many times they are relegated to just one position in that sport. Specialization does not allow for a child to develop a wide range of skills and it has been linked to the rise in the occurrence of sports-related overuse injuries and burnout. Having to choose one sport and one position before a child has physically matured is disadvantageous to the child. A child’s capabilities change along with his changing, growing body. Let me give you a scenario. Let’s say your child is the best forward on the team when he is 8, but by the time he starts to hit his growth spurt at around 13, the other boys start out shining him, and he is now just an average forward. But he is growing tall and has the potential to make an awesome goalie. Unfortunately, since he never got the chance to play any other position than forward, once his skills at this position became average, he lost his motivation to play and dropped out of sport altogether.
Sports may become a source of stress and anxiety. Coaches and parents are important for sports to be a positive, successful experience, but when they apply too much pressure on their children, it takes the fun out of sports and can lead to kids feeling stressed and anxious. This often happens if winning is overemphasized and the child fears failing (1). According to Siedentop (9), too much outside pressure may be a main cause of chasing youth away from sports participation.
Injuries. Overuse injuries are on the rise, possibly due to lack of qualified coaches, possibly due to increasing specialization. They can easily be prevented, and parents should know what steps to take to avoid overuse injuries. Other types of acute injuries, such as bruises, scrapes, and broken bones may not be so easy to prevent. Having safe playing surfaces, protective equipment, and equipment modified to be safer, such as using a softer ball in baseball, can go a long way toward making sports safer.
Dropout and burnout (2, 9). There is a high dropout rate among adolescents. This may be due to lack of opportunities for athletes who get cut from their school teams or club teams, but it could also be due to burnout, or finding other things more interesting than sports, such as spending time with friends. We have already stated the health benefits possible from sport participation, so it would be advantageous from a health standpoint to see the dropout rate decline. Modifications to programs should be made to make them more inclusive of all who want to participate.
Youth sports may be teaching morals and values, but it may not be the values you expected or would want your child to be taught. Sociologists have found that young participants take the moral messages being taught and then twist them in a way that meets their needs, especially their need for acceptance. Furthermore, the moral lessons they seem to be getting are a reinforcement of social norms in a patriarchal society. One case study reported that young baseball players learned how to “be a man” by displaying toughness, dominance and disdain for those considered weak. Another case study of a wrestler revealed that pain and injury are just a part of sports and playing with pain or injury is necessary for acceptance (8).
Violent and aggressive behavior by parents or coaches (1, 10). There is no denying that violence by parents and coaches is a major problem in youth sports. Coakley (10) links the problem to increased involvement from parents, parents expecting a financial or social payoff, and parents attaching their moral worth to the performance of their child.
While thousands of youth participate every year in sports and have an enjoyable experience, there are still risks that come along with participation and ways in which the current youth sports environment does not meet the needs of the youth it serves. Youth sports can be a wonderful way for our kids to have fun, develop skills, meet friends, and learn about their abilities. It is our obligation as professionals, volunteers or parents to ensure that this is the outcome of the youth sports experience for all.
Further Information on Other Sites
Organized Sports for Children and Preadolescents – by the Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness and Committee on School Health (2001) published by Pediatrics, Vol 107, pp. 1459-1462
(1) Cox, R. H. (2002). Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications (5th ed). Boston: McGraw Hill.
(2) Brown, E. W., Clark, M. A., Ewing, M. E., & Malina, R. M. (Summer 1998). Participation in youth sports: Benefits and risks. Spotlight on Youth Sports, 21(2), 1- 4.
(3) Seefeldt, V. & Ewing, M. E. (1997). Youth sports in America: An overview. Washington, D.C: President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Retrieved July 12, 2004 from Trinity University Coates Library database via http://purl.access.gpo. gov/GPO/LPS21092
(4) Katzmarzyk, P. T. & Malina, R. M. (1998). Contribution of organized sports participation to daily estimated energy expenditure in youth. Pediatric Exercise Science, 10, 378-386. Retrieved October 30, 2005 from Academic Search Premier database.
(5) Hoffman, J. R., Kang, J., Faigenbaum, A. D. & Ratamess, N. A. (2005). Recreational sports participation is associated with enhanced physical fitness in children. Research in Sports Medicine, 13, 149-161.
(6) Beets, M. W. & Pitetti, K. H. (2005). Contribution of physical education and sport to health-related fitness in high school students. Journal of School Health, 75, 25-30. Retrieved September 20, 2005 from Health & Wellness Resource Center database.
(7) Elkins, W. L., Cohen, D. A., Koralewicz, L. M. & Taylor, S. N. (2004). After school activities, overweight, and obesity among inner city youth. Journal of Adolescence, 72, 181-189. Retrieved November 6, 2005 from Science Direct database.
(8) Coakley, J. (1996). Socialization through sports. In O. Bar-O (Ed.), The Child and Adolescent Athlete (pp. 353-363). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
(9) Siedentop, D. (2001). Introduction to Physical Education, Fitness, and Sport (4th ed). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.
(10) Coakley, J. (2004). Sports in Society: Issues & Controversies (8th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.