Most every parent knows the joys and pains of children’s sports — the Saturday early morning scramble to get the family up, ready and to the field, which is balanced out by watching your child make a great play.
The benefits of organized sports are numerous.
“Sports can help children meet the 60 minutes or more of physical activity per day recommended by the CDC,” says Dr. Mirjam Quinn, assistant professor of Clinical Psychology at Argosy University, Chicago. “Research shows that participation in team sports can help children develop important social skills, including the ability to delay gratification, follow rules and navigate conflict. Regular exercise decreases anxiety, improves mood, and fosters the development of important brain functions, including attention, planning and organization.”
On the other hand, Quinn cautions, research also shows that some kids who participate in organized sports are at increased risk for performance anxiety, stress and burnout, and may even focus on sports to such a degree that other aspects of the child’s identity are not developed. Why? The pressure to perform.
“There is too much pressure on parents and children alike to be the best, to be special, to be ‘truly gifted.’ Parents are often made to feel that if they don’t make their child shine over and above the rest, the alternative is a life of failure,” says Alan Nathan, an associate professor in the Clinical Psychology program at Argosy University, Washington, D.C.
“While some parents see the capacity of sports to help their children remain healthy and develop positive life skills, others can feel that sports are a vehicle for college scholarships and careers as professional athletes,” says Dr. Kevin Sverduk, chair of the Sport-Exercise Psychology program at Argosy University, Orange County.
That means that sports for children are becoming more competitive and the family is becoming more invested in the game.
“With more and more youth sports being played within ‘club teams,’ families that can afford the costs for the club’s coaching, travel to tournaments, not to mention private coaching that is often needed to stay ahead are often seen as better sport parents. With the individual sports like golf, tennis, figure skating and gymnastics, it is even more of a status symbol to have a child who has achieved some level of success,” says Sverduk.
“When kids see their parents one-up each other over their children’s sports performance, they get the message loud and clear – ‘You are more worthwhile when you do well,’” says Quinn. “Providing external rewards (including praise) and focusing on performance rather than the process of learning saps children of all enjoyment of the activity. Their motivation shifts from intrinsic rewards (like feelings of competence, pride and enjoyment) to external rewards (like performance evaluation and praise). Many kids become dependent on the external rewards and their self-esteem crumbles when they do not win.”
The difference between a kid who benefits from organized sports and one who is crushed under the pressure is whether or not that child has parents and coaches who foster a healthy attitude toward sports. While keeping your child front of mind during their sports activities can be a challenge for some parents, it is a necessity.
“The most important issue is that the child enjoys his or her participation in the sport and that the child feels that his or her parents are invested in supporting the child,” says Nathan.
“If you are a parent and you find yourself becoming emotionally wrapped up in your child’s performance in sports, or academics or advanced basket-weaving, it is probably time to take a step back and remind yourself that it’s your kid who is out there – not you,” cautions Quinn. “At the end of the day, your child is a worthwhile person, regardless of whether she does well or fails outright.”