In addition to being a sports psychology professor, I am also a mother of two young children. It is in the latter role that I have come to learn more about both the beneficial and destructive aspects of youth sports than I ever could gain from my research alone. I have witnessed the extreme highs that can come with the youth sports experience — the friendships, the values learned, the joys that can come from playing something you love — all the things you often hear associated with sports. Unfortunately, I have also witnessed the extreme lows — the darker, more hidden aspects of sports.
Last summer, my son cried after every baseball game because he felt so much pressure with every at-bat that had him striking out over and over again, yet no one was taking the time outside of games to help him focus on the process of batting . With each strikeout, I watched his love di lui for the sport, and his confidence of him in himself, slowly die.
I don’t remember trying out for sports until high school, and even then, everyone made the team. Yet, my children have been participating in tryouts since the age of 7. When a 15-minute time slot determines what team you’re on, and if you are an anxiety-ridden child, how do you think that impacts your sports experience?
I have seen the stratification that comes with being labeled a “good” or “bad” player at a young age; my son, who is now in middle school, still refers to himself as a “blue dot” because that was the color sticker that an adult coach put on his hockey helmet as a young 2nd-grade mite player to indicate that he was one of the less-skilled skaters. Despite watching him grow and mature into one of the “better” players at his level di lui, that stigma still sticks with him to this day and often holds him back from taking risks on the ice.
Most recently, I watched as my 8-year-old daughter hysterically cried in my arms after being told she wouldn’t be able to run track this spring because we missed the registration deadline by a few days. This decision, which was made by the adults in power, despite it still being six weeks away from the start of the season; despite it being a recreational sport for kids as young as kindergarten; despite me pleading with the track director and athletic association president to please allow her to run since this was her very favorite sport di lei and she had had a tough year with anxiety; despite our children going on year three of a global pandemic where we have asked them to stay home, be socially isolated, and absorb the stress of our households with tremendous resiliency; despite the fact that it would mean turning away children who want to be active and participate.
This seemed to be the tipping point for me. It represented so much of what is wrong with youth sports today. We have gotten to a point where we are allowing adults, most of whom have no background or training in exercise or sports, to make decisions about youth sports that can negatively impact children for the rest of their lives.
Here we are, in a mostly sedentary world, where we currently struggle with historic rates of chronic disease, poor mental health, and diminished quality of life, resulting in part from low physical activity adherence. Youth sports should be seen as a tremendous opportunity to intervene and help reverse this problem moving forward. Youth sports could be our one shot to get kids active, not just as kids but also as they grow into adults. Youth sports, if done right, could provide kids with a much-needed healthy outlet and positive role models, which in turn could plant the seeds for a lifelong love of physical activity. Yet, we are doing it all wrong. We have turned it into an elite, competitive minefield that is only accessible to those who can afford it. Even recreational sports now cost more money than most families can afford. Children are expected to start sports at younger ages than ever before and the focus has shifted from process (skill development and having fun) to outcomes (competitions and winning), leading to diminished intrinsic motivation, poor mental health, injury, and high rates of burnout.
I love sports. I grew up playing sports, watching sports, and ultimately choosing a career in sports. Every day that I go out for a run, I am grateful for what running has brought to my life. It has taught me perseverance, it has helped me feel alive during times in my life when I have struggled with my own mental health, and it has brought me great joy over the years. Imagine just one child never knowing that joy because an adult somewhere told them they couldn’t participate.
In our case, we persisted, and we found a neighboring track association that welcomed my daughter in with open arms. I would hope that all youth sports organizations, coaches, and administrators would follow suit, and that every decision that gets made is with the holistic health of the child at heart. After all, shouldn’t we do everything we can to help children be active, learn and develop lifelong skills and values, and fall in love with sports and physical activity?