When it comes to healthy development in children and young people, sport is the most popular extra-curricular activities included in most school’s physical education program. According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), approximately 65% of children worldwide are involved in sports activities. In the US, 55% of American children are involved in youth sports (Kutteroff & Behrens, 2006).
A research conducted by Felfe, Lechner, and Steinmayr (2011) explored the role of participation in sports of children 3 to 10 years old and how it affects human capital formation or our cognitive and non-cognitive skills. The results of their study indicate a positive effect when children participate in sports, such as significant improvement of school grades and non-cognitive skills. When it comes to non-cognitive skills, emotional problems and peer problems were reduced (Felfe, Lechner, and Steinmayr , 2011).
Sports can be fun, not just for adults, but also for children. Participating in sports helps children develop physical skills; improve their health and well-being; allow them to socialize with peers; play as a member of a team; learn sportsmanship; and improve their self-esteem. The sport environment is also developmentally significant, according to Larson (2000), Ryan and Deci (2000), and Scanlan (2002), because it provides important socialization opportunities that are similar to other important life settings and compels participants to adapt and cope which helps them develop emotional self-regulation and problem-solving skills.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP, 2013) the american sports culture, “highly stressful, competitive, win-at-all-costs attitude, and a money making business”, has greatly affected the world of children’s sports and athletics, “creating an unhealthy environment”. Furthermore, AACAP (2013) added that attitudes and behavior taught in children in sports can be carried over to adult life and significant adults such as coaches, trainers, and parents should be very cautious on how they train children in any sport activity.
Professionalization of children’s sports can have both positive and negative effects based on how the activities are presented to children and young athletes. Competition and the win-at-all-cost attitude can cause stress more than enjoyment to children participating in sports. However, they can also teach children and young athletes how to cope with adversity, failure, and pressure as well as improve their self-perceptions, self-esteem, social skills, social relationships, and overall well-being. Reputation and distinction gained from participation in sports, as well as rewards (i.e. trophies, money, scholarship), may also affect stress on young athletes. Adults need to provide a balance in distributing reinforcements to children and young athletes by enhancing both their intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in sport participation.
Coaches, teachers, and parents, play a significant role in making the experience of a child’s participation in sports and athletics positive. According to Smith, Smoll and Cumming (2009), sport environment is usually a competence and achievement context, therefore, making sport as a useful setting in studying the factors involved in performance, enjoyment, and intrinsic motivation in participants. The motivational climate created by the coach is also believed to influence achievement-related motives in young athletes (Smith, Smoll, & Cumming, 2009).
In the field of child development, the term “developmentally appropriate” is often mentioned when it comes to introducing activities to children. Sports and athletics are no different. A developmentally appropriate sport training program can be competitive yet fun and can help improve and develop a child’s self-esteem and self-perception. Any physical activity that is within a child’s cognitive, social, and psychomotor development level also helps the child develop self-efficacy or the individual’s belief in his/her capacity to perform and achieve a certain goal. Just like self-esteem and self-perception, self-efficacy or believing in one’s self is very important in reducing pressure, stress, and avoiding burnout in young athletes.
It is very important for adults to create a fun environment for young athletes regardless if they are competing or performing to achieve a goal. Most young athletes may not have excessive levels of competitive stress in sport, but some do. Determining these individual personality factors in young athletes is important for coaches, teachers, and parents so they may provide training program fit for each child. Knowing the difference on how each child handles pressure, stress, defeat, and fatigue, will help significant adults how to successfully train young athletes and improve their experience and participation in sports. Furthermore, according to Wiese-Bjornstal, LaVoi, and Omli (2009), “caring, supportive, and secure relationships with important adults such as coaches can convey protective influences against risk and lead to positive psychological outcomes such as emotional resiliency, personal empowerment, stronger self-worth, and capacity to deal with conflict”. This is also applicable to parents who are involved in their child’s sport activities. Altogether, significant adults providing a positive social-psychological environment and experience to children and young athletes can significantly affect their achievement patterns, positive cognate and emotional responses. This is highly supported by research that consistently reveals demonstration of positive adaptive skills and behavior among athletes who were trained in motivational climates (Wiese-Bjornstal, LaVoi, & Omli, 2009).
Young people’s participation in sports can benefit them in many ways such as exposure to and participating in a team. Working with other children in a team exposes a child to the concept of cooperation and being a team player. Competition in sports can also affect a child’s emotional development. Success may enhance a child’s self-esteem, while defeat may teach a child how to handle and cope with such a situation (Felfe, Lechner, and Steinmayr , 2011). According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP, 2013), to help children get the most out of sports, adults need to be actively involved by providing emotional support and positive feedback; attending some games and talking about them afterward; having realistic expectations for the child; learning about the sport and supporting the child’s involvement; helping the child talk about his/her experience with the coach and other team members; helping the child handle disappointment and losing; and modeling respectful spectator behavior.
Coping is a way of managing difficult life situations, and may consist of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral efforts. In sports, difficult situations may involve injury, performance setbacks, competitive loss, and unfavorable social experience with coaches. Wiese-Bjornstal, LaVoi, and Omli (2009) identified and presented three dimensions of coping with the stress and anxiety of sport situations: (i) problem-focused coping (trying to change the situation), (ii) emotion-focused coping (managing the emotions associated with the situation), and (iii) avoidance coping (removing oneself from the situation). Helping young athletes deal with stress and pressure by teaching them the skills and coping strategies based on their personalities (i.e. low anxiety vs. high anxiety), can make a lot of difference in their performance and future participation in sports.
Physical activities can help children gain a more positive self-concept, and better self-esteem by using tools such as self-talk, goal-setting, and self-assessment. Coaches, teachers, and parents must also gain an understanding of the different training levels that are developmentally appropriate to prevent high levels of stress, anxiety, burnout, and even injury in young athletes. Canada Sport for Life has an excellent resource called the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model. It highlights the appropriate training habits of Canadian youth and is based off six stages of athletic development: (i) FUNdamental stage, (ii) learning to train, (iii) training to train, (iv) training to compete, (v) training to win, and (vi) retirement/retainment (Ferguson and Stern, 2014). Based on the LTAD model, the early stages of athletic training must be fun and engaging that gradually transitions to a more skill-focused, intense and high level competition type of training. Although, even during the later stages of training, the fun factor should not be taken away because an enjoyable activity can maintain the motivation, engagement, and participation of children even in competitive sports.
Weinberg (2015) provided a great 12 coaching guidelines on how to coach young athletes, which are drawn from Smoll and Smith (1980), Weiss (1991), and Conroy and Coatsworth (2006): (i) use affirming, instructional, supportive, and autonomy-supportive behaviors, (ii) focus on catching kids doing things right and give them plenty of praise and encouragement, (iii) give praise sincerely, (iv) develop realistic expectations, (v) reward effort as much as outcome, (vi) focus on teaching and practicing skills, (vii) modify activities so they are developmentally appropriate and ensures success, (viii) modify rules to maximize action and participation, (ix) reward correct technique, not just outcome, (x) use a positive “sandwich” approach or praise—information—positive remark, (xi) create an environment that reduces fear of trying new skills, and (xii) be enthusiastic. Weinberg’s guidelines is a good summary or list on how to make the experience of young athletes fun and less stressful.
Sports and physical activities can definitely help children develop into healthy adults. With proper use of physical activity and sports principles, and good professional supervision, sports programs can be developed to benefit children’s development by providing them the physical, social, psychological, cognitive, and emotional skills which can be carried over to adulthood. After all, what can be learned from sports can be applied to other aspects of our lives and vice versa.
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). (2013). Facts for families: Children and sports. No. 61, Retrieved from http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/Facts_for_Families_Pages/Children_And_Sports_61.aspx
- Felfe, C., Lechner, M., & Steinmayr, A. (2011). Sports and child development. Bonn, Germany: IZA Discussion Paper No. 6105
- Ferguson, B., & Stern, P.J. (2014). A case of early sports specialization in an adolescent athlete. Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, 58(4), pp 377 - 383
- Smith, R.,E., Smoll, F.L., & Cumming, S.P. (2009). Motivational climate and changes in young athlete’s achievement goal orientations. Motivation and Emotion, 33, pp 173-183
- Wiese-Bjornstal, LaVoi, and Omli .(2009). Child and adolescent development and sport participation. In B.W. Brewer (Ed.), Sport Psychology (pp. 97-111 ). NJ. USA: Wiley-Blackwell.