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Sports for Kids: The Promise and the Problems, Pt. 2

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Kenneth Jefferson Allen, MS, Meredith College Dietetic Intern

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on kids and sports. For Part 1, click here. This post is in honor of Youth Sports Safety Month.

If you’re like most of us, you know one, two, or even more parents who do it. You might even be one of them yourself. Although they know it’s not really that likely, and probably admit as much, they can’t help but hope….especially on a beautiful fall morning, right after a perfect goal.

Yes, I’m talking about the dream that your child will become a star athlete. Maybe you picture him as starting quarterback, hope she’ll “score” a college scholarship, or even dream that he could play pro or semi-pro or compete in the Olympics. It’s a natural tendency for a proud parent of a talented child or teen. But a recent review of current issues in children’s and teens’ sports warns moms and dads against getting too focused on these ambitions.

What Do Kids Want Out of Sports? 

Despite what most parents believe, many studies have found that children are not very interested in winning at sports. Though it varies a bit by age and gender, most youth say they play sports to “have fun.” What’s more, at least one study found that the main reason kids drop out of sports (and about 70% do by the time they’re 13) is because “it isn’t fun anymore.” Other reasons kids drop out include too much emphasis on winning, coach favoritism, and poor coaching skills and coach behavior.

Talent Doesn’t Predict Much

As for “star potential,” experts remind parents that raw talent at a young age is not a good predictor of future performance. Love of the game, motivation, hard work, and a willingness to stick to it through the highs and lows play a huge role. Talent is exciting and fun to watch, but it takes a lot more than talent to excel. For that matter, sometimes the costs to child and family are too high, in more ways than one.

Specializing Too Soon

Single-sport specialization is another trend that concerns experts and sports psychologists. It’s become common for promising youth athletes to specialize early in one sport, often playing year-round or close to it, and training and practicing very heavily. Not only does this risk injury, there’s evidence that it can increase the chance of burnout and cause kids to drop out, feel isolated from peers, or experience social problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against specializing before age 12 or 13, citing research showing that multisport athletes experience fewer injuries and stay in sports longer.

High Costs

Finally, there’s the issue of family cost. As parents know, youth sports can be expensive. Though inexpensive options are out there, the money factor can take a toll on families. A 2012 poll found that the average family cost to play on a school team was about $400 per year. This may not sound insurmountable to some, but according to the Aspen Institute, parents whose children play on elite “travel teams” spend an average of a whopping $2200 a year on their child’s sports expenses. Multiply these expenses by multiple children and multiple years, and they really add up.

If this is a cost that feels worth it at the time, then go for it. But if you’re considering it an “investment” towards a possible future payoff, think carefully. Less than .05% of high school athletes will ever play professional sports. Less than 4% of high school athletes play for a Division I or Division II school in college. Research also shows that the value of the scholarships that those lucky few receive may actually be exceeded by the amount parents have spent over the years on sports training, uniforms, camps, travel, and so on.

How To Help Kids Really Enjoy Sports

Youth sports participation has many important benefits, both physical and psychological. It can increase fitness, improve emotional resilience, be incredibly fun, and build lasting friendships. However, some elements of our current youth “sports culture” are creating concern among those who observe these issues.

To help your children and teens enjoy sports, look for a low-pressure environment that emphasizes fun and sportsmanship over winning, and coaches who are fair, well-trained, let all kids play, and provide positive feedback. Follow the AAP recommendations regarding overtraining, burnout, and specialization, and don’t get caught up in spending more than your family can afford or in assuming your child will make it “to the top.” And to make sure kids stay safe on the field, check out the first part in our series.

With these recommendations in mind, your child is likely to enjoy sports more and stay active longer—a home run for families.

Further Reading:

Early Specialization in Sports: Nine Reasons Why It’s a Bad Idea

Fun is Still Number One Reason Kids Play Sports

Project Play

The Positive Coaching Alliance

References:

Brenner, J. S., & the Council on Sports Medicine & Fitness. (2007). Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes. Pediatrics, 119(6), 1242-1245. http://dx.doi.org/10.1542/peds.2007-0887

Merkel, D. (2013). Youth sport: Positive and negative impact on young athletes. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 4, 151-160. 

The Aspen Institute. (2014). Project Play. Retrieved from http://www.aspenprojectplay.org/the-facts

University of Michigan Health System. (2015). Pay to play keeping kids on the sidelines. Retrieved from http://www.uofmhealth.org/news/archive/201501/pay-play-keeping-kids-sidelines

Photo Credits: fiorigianluigi/iStock/Thinkstock