Youth sports programs have become the focal point of many family-oriented communities nationwide. Little League, sponsored sports programs and T-ball, are just three programs among thousands available for families and their children. The increased national interest in sports over the past two decades has promoted the increased endorsement of these programs, as well as developed interest on the part of families to encourage partaking by their children. Many of the programs developed to encourage healthy levels of competitive and cooperative behavior, help children develop a sense of fair play, and help children find self-esteem by rewarding physical activities. Programs like Little League have been recognized as a stepping stone in the development of major baseball players, as well as presidents and successful business people. The competitive nature of sports does not necessarily mean that children will develop unhealthy asocial competitive behaviors.
At the same time, there are a number of factors that can impact the influences of organized youth sports programs on the participants, and studies have shown that the results of the full picture of youth sports is not always a positive one. Some of the influencing factors include: the participation of parents in youth sports programs, the suggestion by coaches, parents and observers that winning is more important than the game itself, and the nature of sports, that lends itself to competitive and aggressive behavior. It is difficult to develop a concrete perspective about the impacts of youth sports programs without considering these influences. The influences described above have a decidedly negative impact on the outcomes of youth sports programs. Children develop their sense of fair play and their perceptions of ethical behavior in part within the context of these programs. These programs can also make a significant impact on the development of a child’s self-perception, self-esteem and emotional health. If the messages displayed by adults in reference to the sporting events have a decidedly negative tone, the impact of youth sports programs on the emotional development of children will not have positive outcomes.
Much of the current literature on children and sports develops around the theory that children are negatively impacted by the competitive nature of sports programs in conjunction with the influence of observers, coaches and parents. Little League, in particular, has been the focus of a number of studies into the impact of the program on the social and emotional development of the children involved. Though Little League has been pushed as a sport focused on fun for children, the competition pushed on children by parent’s expectations turns potentially healthy fun into competitive battles pitting friend against friend (Verdi, 1990). Though the basic premise of youth sports is to encourage the enjoyment of sports activities, the focus on winning has reshaped the program (Rosen, 1996).
Over the past 30 years, a basic outline of the rules of sports competition, even as they refer to youth sports programs, has been widely accepted by coaches, parents and sports supporters in general. These rules include basic precepts like: 1. team matters more than the individual; 2. achievement comes from preparation, not fun; 3. control calm under pressure, and perseverance are the necessary to win the game; 4. criticism is more valuable than praise (Rosen, 1996). With guidelines like these as the basics for youth sports, it is not wonder that parents and players have learned that the game is more significant than the process or lessons learned there.
Many have believed that one of the most valuable lessons developed from youth sports is the development of the outset of fair play, in a way that young children can recognize and apply. Though the basic definition of fair play suggests justice applied to interpersonal actions, it takes on a slightly different and more specific outline when considered in terms of youth sports programs (Covrig, 1996). Fair play has been described as a very lofty set of virtues, including things like: truthfulness, self-respect, consideration for others, self-control, courage, courtesy, as well as fairness (Covrig, 1996). With these virtues as the basis, one would be led to believe that any child participating in a youth program that claims a focus on fair play could do nothing but benefit from these programs. But one of the major discrepancies in youth sports exist in the difference between the message and the messenger. Though fair play is a major focus of the premise for youth sports, the individual who create, develop and coach these programs do not often embrace these virtues in practice (Covrig, 1996).
In the same respect, parents who hope to develop a sense of fair play in their children by encouraging their participation in sports frequently display behaviors that do not reflect the same virtues. The major problem with this situation is that parent’s often impose the expectations relative to adult competitive sports on their children, who have not yet learned to embrace the American idealization of winning (Martin, 1986). This transfer of parental expectations onto their children can result in a number of damaging psychological problems, including: burnout, injury, and feelings of rejections, causing lowered self-esteem, when children can not meet the expectations of their parents (Martin, 1986).
Many children simply want to participate in sports programs to have fun, have a recreational activity and work together with friends towards a common goal (Kohl and Nelson, 1990). It has been recognized that competition can foster mistrust between children, when winning serves to dismiss losers, creates envy of the winners and leads children away from the focus of the game (Kohn and Nelson, 1990).
It is also clear that the pressure that parents place on their children to compete and win creates its own set of inherent psychological dilemmas. Children who have been pressured by their parents in youth sports activities often display increased amounts of anxiety along with an increased level of awareness about the importance of the game (Weider, 1993). In other words, one child may be able to perceive the game as simply a game, but another child, under increased pressure from his parents, may only be able to relate to the game in terms of the amount of pressure created. This pits children against each other; the children most likely to succeed and win the game are those who are least prepared to deal with any other option. This creates a scary reality for those children who perceive that they are unbeatable, but also are beaten by anther team. When children’s self perceptions are directly related to their ability to win, there is clearly evidence that their inabilities then feed their lowered self-perceptions (Kantrowitz, 1996).
There are some theorists who even believe that these youth sports programs that focus on winning or losing are dangerous (Leo, 1993). Children of parents who push them in sporting events often feel they cannot ever lose because of their parents expectations. This process of parental control and the child’s self-perception can lead to humiliation and despair (Leo, 1993).
The perceptions of children’s sports programs are not all bad. It is clear that with over a million children participating in a wide variety of programs, that the success cannot only be attributed to the enthusiasm of parents. Children, too, must perceive benefits of the programs in order for retention levels to be as high as they are (Rumpf 1992). Children, who can compete fairly, congratulate the winners with sincerity and accept victory with grace benefit from the structure and the healthy competition created within these programs (Rumpf, 1992). The most significant problems occur not because of the structure of the games, the programs developed or the basic ideals behind youth sports programs. Instead, it is clear that the disastrous effects of youth sports programs come as a result of the interaction between children, parents and coaches (Rumpf, 1992).
The literature studies supports the thesis that youth sports programs can negatively impact the development of children in respect to self-esteem, self-perceptions and emotional health, though it is also clear that the impact has a direct relationship to adult interactions. Though the programs developed often support fair play and healthy competitiveness, the expectations of parents, coaches and spectators often transform seemingly friendly games into competitive battles with little respect for teammates and other players.
Children who can succeed within these programs do so with the help of coaches and parents who do not impose difficult, if not impossible expectations on their children’s participation. In order to realize the most benefits from these programs, parents must recognize the impact of their personal expectations on their children’s emotional stability.
Covrig, Durane (1996, July). Sport, Fair Play, and Children’s Concepts of Fairness. Journal for a Just and Caring Education, vol. 2(3), pp. 263-282.
Harris, Judith and Liebert, Robert (1987). The Child. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.
Kantrowitz, Barbara (1996, December). “Don’t Just Do it For Daddy.” Newsweek, vol. 128(24), pp. 56-57.
Kohn, A. & Nelson, M. (1990, July). Competing Views: Is Competition Healthy? Women’s Sports and Fitness, vol. 12(5), pp. 56-59.
Leo, John (1993, May). Phys Ed or Self-esteem? US News and World Report, vol. 114(21), pp. 21.
Martin, Katherine (1986, October). Is Winning Everything? Parents, vol. 61(10), pp. 144-146.
Rosen, Larry (1996, April). The Old Bawl Game. Men’s Health, vol. 11(3), pp. 58-63.
Rumpf, Eva (1992, September). Sports Just For Fun. Current Health 2, vol. 19(1), pp. 22-23.
Verdi, Bob (1990, August). Adults Turn Little League into Basebrawl. Sporting News, vol. 210(9), pp. 46.
Weider, Joe (1993, February). Pushed into Sports? Muscle and Fitness, vol. 54(2), pp. 10.