There’s nothing like gearing up in your uniform, stepping onto the freshly-mown field, and feeling your heart gallop in your chest as you prepare to play the first game of the season. For many kids, this sensation is the most excited they’ve felt their entire lives. For many parents, few things are as rewarding as watching their kids play sports, learning to work as a team and overcome obstacles.
Unfortunately, youth sports can present significant pitfalls, which may even overshadow the benefits if not taken care of. Life imbalance, overuse injuries, and hyperfocus on winning can ruin youth sports for the kids who play them. The good news is that when parents and kids recognize these pitfalls, they can combat them, and youth sports can remain a joyful, positive force in kids’ lives.
When youth participate in sport consistently, they have great opportunities to develop initiative and interpersonal skills. But here is the pitfall: what is the appropriate balance between dedication to sports and participation in other pursuits? Developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD. suggests that an over-focus on sports can be unhealthy.
Does that mean you should sign Johnny up for every available after school club? Dr. Price-Michell says the important thing to focus on “is not necessarily the numbers of activities in which youth participate but rather that they have outlets beyond sports. . . . One study found youth who participated in sports and school clubs had lower rates of depression than kids who focused exclusively on sports.”
The right balance between sports and other activities is different for each child. Parents should assess each child’s life balance and make adjustments so that not only each activity but time spent is healthy and helpful.
Teaching our kids the value of work is vital. Sports can teach kids discipline, focus, and the satisfaction that comes from good work. But when parents and coaches preach “practice makes perfect,” do they take it too far?
They might. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 50 percent of all pediatric sports injuries are related to overuse. Overuse injuries are defined as "micro traumatic injury to a bone, muscle or tendon that has been subjected to repetitive stress without sufficient time to heal or undergo the natural healing process."
The problem is that kids’ bones aren’t fully developed; at the end of their bones, they have growth plates made of cartilage, which are softer and more vulnerable than mature bones. So when they practice kicking the ball the same way too many times in a short period, all the bones involved in that movement can’t recover properly.
What’s the solution? Younger kids should focus on form and flexibility first. Bodyweight exercises, springing and reacting drills, and weights should follow. To help kids practice correct form, they can use tools like the SOCKIT, a device that indicates in real time when soccer players are kicking the ball with the proper technique. Focusing on form and flexibility will help kids avoid the all-too-common problem of overuse.
Hyperfocus on Winning
“Who won?” is usually the first question we ask about a game we didn’t get to go to. It’s no secret: we care about winning. But for kids playing sports, the focus on product (winning or losing) over process (self-discovery, teamwork, and learning) may be damaging. While we might think that the competitiveness that accompanies a desire to win increases happiness, that’s not actually the case. One study of 42 nations found that “happiness decreases as the level of competition increases in a given society.” Ouch.
So how can kids and their parents avoid this pitfall? Parents, if you’re the problem, relax a little. You want your kids to be happy. Remember, some of life’s best lessons “don’t require victories, and in fact many . . . are best taught in defeat.”
If your child’s coach is putting too much emphasis on winning, take him or her aside after practice is over for the day and explain that you want your child to be able to focus on the process rather than the product. You could add that you’d rather your child focus on doing his or her best, not on avoiding mistakes or failure, and that the overemphasis on winning can undermine a child’s confidence.
Youth sports, as great as they are, can present significant pitfalls. But when parents and kids understand how to maintain life balance, care for growing bodies, and focus on process over product, youth sports can continue to be a healthy part of kids’ lives. And when they step on the field, they’ll feel nothing but a rush of joy.