Oct 31, 2011

Kids and Sports

By Steve Smith of SPaRC of Santa Barbara  

I've had an interesting conversion of research and clinical experiences recently that gave rise to this topic.  Sports, games, and other physical activities are important for good social and physical development in kids, but what are the downsides?  We all hear the stories of bad parental behavior in the stands and some of us can even remember "sideline coaching" that embarrassed or even frightened our teammates.  Some of these incidents have made national headlines (e.g, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Junta).  

I just finished collaboration on a paper of youth soccer players and their parents.  This was a national study of young kids in a soccer program.  Both parents and the kids completed surveys about what they liked most/least about playing soccer, the types of behaviors they expected from coaches, and how parents should react.  Not surprisingly, kids played soccer because it was fun and, by-and-large, the parents also wanted their kids to have a positive experience. Interestingly, parents were more concerned about their kids making mistakes or having an experience of failure, whereas most kids accepted these as a normal part of the game.  That is, parents seemed to be more bothered by their kids feeling bad than the kids did.  Many people have criticized the "everyone wins" atmosphere in youth sports and I would agree that certainly by the later grade school years, any discomfort about losing is a "parent issue."

Another struggle that parents face is the issue of sport specialization.  How early should a child specialize in a given sport?  Certainly for sports like gymnastics where the competitors tend to be younger, early specialization is a given.  However, for most sports (especially contact sports), the necessary physical and psychological development for competition comes at a later age. Research tells us that people who specialize in sports too early risk burn out, injury, or even disrupted growth patterns.  All of this is in addition to social and emotional consequences of too much practice too early on.  Most children are not expected to hold time-consuming jobs at early ages, but serious sport training is really no different.  Along with collaborators, I'm working on a project that analyzes minor league baseball players' progression in their sport.  We found no difference between early versus late specializers in terms of college scholarships, quality of play, or development.  However, those who specialized early reported more instances of depression, injury, and burnout.    

The message here is clear.  Children should learn to love physical activity and come to it in their own time.  Parents should support and encourage, but not pressure their children to compete.  In the end, it needs to be fun and enriching and not a source of guilt, shame, or diminished self-worth.  Sports teach kids necessary lessons about hard work, winning and losing, teamwork, and goal-setting, but if taken too far too soon, can have some negative consequences.

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