Do you have fond memories of playing sports as a child? Was running down the soccer field alongside your teammates or shooting hoops on the court after school some of your favorite activities to do in your free time? For many children, sports provide not only a great physical outlet but also a way to learn valuable life skills and bond with friends. In today’s world, however, sometimes youth sports promote a level of intensity and pressure on children that can be intimidating. Learning to help children balance fun and performance in sports is key to making their experience enriching.
The Real Benefits of Youth Sports
A few generations ago, youth sports might have involved a few friends playing a pick-up game of basketball after school or a summer baseball team with neighbors. Today, youth sports are highly organized, competitive, and widespread. It’s estimated that three-quarters of children ages 6–12 play sports at least once a year.1 Youth sports have become not only a fun pastime but also an important part of childhood for many. This is likely in part due to the developmental benefits that children gain (and parents recognize) through sports. Clearly, sports provide a fun and consistent way for children to stay physically active. Organized sports offer a way for children to consistently exercise their bodies and develop their motor skills. In today’s world full of digital devices and technological distractions, keeping children physically active is no small task. The health benefits of youth sports are significant. Being involved in sports seems to set children up with healthy fitness habits for adulthood. Teens who play sports are 8 times as likely to be active in adulthood as those who do not.2 Parents recognize the need for children to stay active, especially with friends. Parents cite physical health as the top reason for enrolling their children in sports.3
Beyond the physical health benefits, youth sports also convey important mental health and academic benefits as well. In a large study of youth athletes in the United States, results showed that participants developed stronger social-emotional skills than those in non-sports programs.4 These skills include things like teamwork, social interaction skills, and positive self-identity. Other research from Finland showed that participation in sports was linked to more positive mental health, even into young adulthood.5
Perhaps surprisingly, participation in youth sports seems to also support children’s academic endeavors. Children and adolescents who participate in sports tend to have better academic performance.6 Additionally, high school athletes tend to attend college at higher rates and are more likely to graduate from a four-year college or university.7
When researchers talk directly to children about the benefits or motivators for sport participation, their responses generally mimic the benefits we see in research. When asked about what motivates them to play sports, children are most likely to mention the following topics: fun/enjoyment, exercise, and to learn or improve skills.2 Thus, it seems children themselves recognize the benefits they receive from sports and this motivates them to participate.
The Potential Downsides of Youth Sports
Despite these benefits, in recent years, youth sports have come to be associated with some negative attributes. Some onlookers worry that the children involved in youth sports are subject to intense pressure to perform and scrutiny from coaches and/or parents. If your children are involved in sports at all, you’ve probably witnessed parents or coaches who become extremely personally invested in their child or player’s performance. This type of pressure can often be too intense for young minds to handle.8 Given that children have not yet fully developed their sense of identity, one concern is that their sports performance may begin to be closely tied to their self-esteem. That is, children may begin to feel poorly about themselves unless they perform well in their sport.8
In general, the concerns related to youth sports center on their impact on children’s mental health. Studies of college athletes have shown us that young people can experience a series of mental health problems as a result of intense athletic pressure. Research among top college athletes reveals that rates of mental health problems might be as high as 48 percent. Of concern also is the fact that the most common age of onset of mental health problems was 17–21 years of age.9 With youth sports becoming more competitive and specialized at younger ages,10 these are the types of statistics parents and mental health professionals hope to avoid in young athletes.
Helping Children Have a Positive Sports Experience
Many children have a passion for their sport, and we want to encourage their growth and physical activity. How can we support our children’s love of sport while not allowing them to succumb to the pressures? Looking at research on why children drop out of sports offers us helpful insight into the issues children face and how we might help them avoid them. Two of the top reasons why children leave youth sports are: (1) anxiety due to excessive criticism;11 and (2) not having enough time to participate in other age-appropriate activities.11
With these challenges in mind, there are a few things we can do to safeguard our children’s mental health while still supporting their sports participation:
Support Without Pressure: Of course, we all want our children to do well in their sport of choice, but pressuring too much usually leads to anxiety rather than high performance. Instead of focusing on a child’s competitive standing, turn your attention to their growth.12 Focusing on your child’s continued growth in a sport rather than their ranking with other athletes takes a little of the pressure off. This puts the emphasis on your child competing with themselves and trying to grow their own skills.
Allow for Free Play: Once our children grow past the elementary years, we sometimes forget that they still need time for play. Sports provide a great physical outlet, but they are not the same as free play. Even into the adolescent years, children need free time to just play and hang out with friends in a way that is not organized or orchestrated by adults. This might mean playing frisbee at the park with friends or even playing video games at a friend’s house. If organized sports begin to dominate almost all of children’s free time, they are at risk of becoming less motivated to continue with the sport.11
Children can gain many valuable life lessons by participating in sports. However, if the sports contribute to anxiety or limit their typical childhood experiences, the benefits of their participation may be undermined. By keeping sports in perspective and limiting the pressure on children, they can continue to love it and reap its benefits.
- Kuhn, A., Grusky, A., Cash, C., Churchwell, A., and Diamond, A. (2021) Disparities and Inequities in Youth Sports. Current Sports Medicine Reports, Volume 20, Number 9, September 2021. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Andrew-Kuhn-2/publication/354486841_Disparities_and_Inequities_in_Youth_Sports/links/61433e1eb5bdf5148e269dca/Disparities-and-Inequities-in-Youth-Sports.pdf
- Aspen Institute (2022) Youth Sports Facts: Benefits. Project Play, Aspen Institute, 2022.https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/youth-sports/facts/benefits
- Aspen Institute (2018) What Parents Want. Healthy Sport Index, Project Play, 2018.https://healthysportindex.com/report/what-parents-want/
- Laureus Sport for Good Foundation (2021) New Study: Youth Sports Promote Social & Emotional Learning, Especially Among Young Men Of Color. Cision, PR Newswire, Feb 02, 2021. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-study-youth-sports-promote-social–emotional-learning-especially-among-young-men-of-color-301220284.html
- Appelqvist-Schmidlechner, K., Vaara, J., Häkkinen, A., Vasankari, T., Mäkinen, J., Mäntysaari, M., & Kyröläinen, H. (2018). Relationships Between Youth Sports Participation and Mental Health in Young Adulthood Among Finnish Males. American Journal of Health Promotion, 32(7), 1502- 1509. https://jyx.jyu.fi/bitstream/handle/123456789/64144/relationships%20between%20youth%20sports%20participation.pdf?sequence=1
- Blowes, M. (2022) Sport During School Linked to Academic Performance. University of Sydney News, Feb. 11, 2022.https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2022/02/11/sport-during-school-linked-to–academic-performance.html
- Silverman, T. (2021) Back on the Field: The Impact of Youth Sports on Academics, Health, and Relationships. Indiana Youth Institute, August 9, 2021.https://www.iyi.org/back-on-the-field-the-impact-of-youth-sports-on-academics-health-and-relationships/
- Lindholm, M. (2017) The Pros and Cons of Youth Sports Aren’t Only Physical. Psychology Today, May 5, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/more-women-s-work/201705/the-pros-and-cons-youth-sports-aren-t-only-physical
- Åkesdotter, C., Kenttäa, G., Elorantac, S., and Franck, J. (2020) The Prevalence of Mental Health Problems in Elite Athletes. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Vol. 23, 2020, p. 329–335.http://dok.slso.sll.se/BeroendeC/Elitidrott/akesdotter_et_al_2020_the_prevalence_of_mental_health_problems_in_elite_athletes.pdf
- Lerner Children’s Pavillion (2022) Intensive Participation in a Single Sport: Good or Bad for Kids? Lerner Children’s Pavillion, Hospital for Special Surgery, 2022. https://www.hss.edu/pediatrics-intensive-participation-single-sport-good-bad-kids.asp
- Witt, P. and Dangi, T. (2018) Why Children/Youth Drop Out of Sports. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration Vol. 36, pp.191–199. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Peter-Witt/publication/326910870_Why_ChildrenYouth_Drop_Out_of_Sports_-_Journal_of_Park_and_Recreation_Administration/links/5bf058394585150b2bbdd454/Why-Children-Youth-Drop-Out-of-Sports-Journal-of-Park-and-Recreation-Administration.pdf
- Youth Sports Research Council (2018) Guidelines for Supportive Parents. Youth Sports Research Council, Rutgers University, 2018. https://youthsports.rutgers.edu/wp-content/uploads/Guidelines-for-Supportive-Parents.pdf