Now that it's spring, youth sports programs are in full swing. Having taught Sports Sociology at UCSB for over two decades, I find that parents and coaches are aware of the many benefits of it -- not to mention sports is a fun way to help kids stay fit and healthy.
However, less-known are the psychological impacts. Research from thousands of youth sport participants, their parents, coaches and teachers, have shown there are both psychological benefits and risks with sports. I list four risks and four benefits in hopes of empowering parents, coaches and the adults in childrens' lives to make sports a positive mental, physical and emotional experience.
- Self-esteem is tied to sport performance: Who a child is as a person shouldn’t be tied closely to the ability to hit home runs or score touchdowns. If it is, that’s a guaranteed set-up for feelings of failure and low self-esteem. Most young athletes feel great when they win, but it’s how they handle loss that defines their long-term character. Remind your sporty kid that she’s always a winner in your book, even if she loses.
- Coaches who demoralize and bully: There are more wonderful coaches than those who do damage, but it would be naïve to expect all coaches to have your child’s psychological interests at heart. Too often, a win-at-all-costs mentality devastates young athletes. Be on the lookout for behaviors that humiliate the child. Does the coach call out and embarrass players? The best coaches inspire through positive reinforcement and role modeling, not harassment and bullying.
- Delusions that sport will provide college scholarships: Too many parents believe that their child is destined to receive a Division 1 college scholarship. This is akin to playing the lottery -- don’t bank on it. Putting all your eggs in the sports basket is misguided and dangerous for your child’s emotional well-being. Make sure that your athlete has other interests and doesn’t believe that sports are the only route to success.
- Unhealthy performance pressure: Sports psychologists are in high demand because parents, coaches, teams and schools put undue pressure on young athletes to perform well every time they step onto the field, court, or track. Remember, they’re children, not professional athletes. As the mom who spent thousands of dollars on travel and coaching for my son who was a 15-year-old national age group karate champion, I understand the inclination to demand more, but kids are kids. Work with them to maintain perspective and understand that it’s only a game.
- The ability to take criticism and work collaboratively: To help young athletes improve, coaches must point out mistakes and faulty technique. Learning to handle this feedback establishes a foundation for adult skill-building and collaboration. In addition, with their team and coaches, athletes learn the give-and-take of working together and managing conflict. Research suggests that athletic girls become women who are better equipped to handle criticism and stress.
- Self-esteem and efficacy: Skill-building in sport enhances self-esteem, which carries over into other areas of life. Going from not being able to make a basket to rarely missing a foul shot can boost a young person’s ego. Gaining efficacy in one arena, especially when helped by a coach or a parent, demonstrates that listening and practicing yield positive results. This self-awareness helps young athletes make an invaluable connection between their goals and effort.
- Acquisition of a work ethic: Sports require effort and commitment, both traits that serve us well in adulthood. I’ve seen how my children apply the aptitude for hard work and effort that they acquired in athletics to almost everything they do in their lives, from hobbies to academic assignments. Excelling in sport is all about the work we expend, which sets up an excellent foundation for long-term success.
- Positive body image: Our contemporary addiction to social media and adulation of seemingly “perfect”-looking people can wreak havoc on children’s body image. While not always a perfect antidote, sports can make young athletes feel proud of their bodies and what those bodies can do.
As adults, we should all be aware of the psychological risks that come with sport participation while reinforcing the positives. Sports are supposed to be fun. When it stops being fun and has the potential to hurt the child, it’s time to shift gears and reevaluate. However, if your young athlete is having fun, the rewards can last a lifetime.