I hesitate to write this post because I know it is a topic that can be polarizing. I also know that it is a very important topic and one that needs to be spoken about so, I will write this, but with the preface that I am not judging; I realize that most people are really just trying to do what is best and that sometimes it is just hard to know what that is. I truly believe that sport can and should be a positive experience for all involved no matter the level. Bear with me through some scary talk about the risk factors and potential negative outcomes of youth sport (especially competitive or elite youth sport) and I promise we'll end on a more optimistic tone with some tips for how to ensure a positive sport experience for your youth athletes.
The Risk Factors
To start to understand youth sport we have to start with some of the factors that create potentially risky situations for youth in sport. The first one - and most obvious but often overlooked - is that youth athletes are young. Their age alone is a factor that leaves them at greater risk of abuse and maltreatment. Their lack of knowledge, experience, psychological maturity, and resulting inability to think critically, make informed decisions, and consent to the risks inherent in sport, leave them more vulnerable to possible exploitation (Farstead, 2007; Pinheiro, Pimenta, Resende, & Malcolm, 2012). Young athletes rely on adults including parents, coaches, sport administrators, doctors, and other professionals to protect them and preserve their rights while participating in sport. Other risk factors include the professionalization of sport and a focus on winning (Brower, 1979), real or perceived high stakes in competition and adult egos (Brower, 1979; Pinheiro et al., 2012), intensive specialized year-round training and competition (Anderson, Greisemer, Johnson, Martin, McLain, Rowland, & Small, 2000; Farstead, 2007; Schubring & Thiel, 2014), power imbalances in intensive coach-athlete relationships (Farstad, 2007; Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Pinheiro et al., 2012), and a sport ethos that normalizes risk and abuse (Farstad, 2007; Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Pinheiro et al., 2012; Schubring & Thiel, 2014; Stirling & Kerr, 2010). Any of these factors can create unsafe situations for youth athletes. I also caution parents not to dismiss this with the thought that your child is not participating in an elite or competitive level of sport - many of these risk factors are becoming more prevalent even at lower levels of sport participation. If you have questions or want to know more about any of these factors I encourage you to take a look at some of the references listed at the bottom of this article or contact me to learn more.
The Potential Positive Outcomes
This is not to say that youth sport is bad; when it goes well researchers have found many benefits including improved physical health and growth as well as psychosocial and motor skills development (Fraser-Thomas, Côté, & Deakin, 2008; IOC Medical Commission, 2005; Russell & Limle, 2013; Strachan, Côté, & Deakin, 2011; Weber, 2009). In addition, parents continue to enroll their children hoping they will learn many life skills and values through sport; leadership, responsibility, discipline, confidence, and sportsmanship are among the most frequently referenced. While these can all be developed through sport, sport participation does not inherently guarantee their development, and, to make matters more complicated, there are many negative outcomes that can occur from sport participation in combination with the risk factors listed above.
The Potential Negative Outcomes
These negative outcomes can be direct or indirect and all take away from the potential benefits of sport participation for youth. Direct negative outcomes come in the form of relational maltreatment (physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or neglect) and denial of rights (Sterling and Kerr, 2010). While sexual abuse scandals often make national or international news, it is important to note that it is just one possible negative outcome. For example, neglect itself can be broken into four types: physical, educational, emotional, and social (Stirling & Kerr, 2010). Indirect negative outcomes often include long lasting, residual physical, emotional, and psychological problems such as chronic injuries, eating disorders, low self-esteem and self-worth, anxiety, depression, and restricted identity (Farstad, 2007; Fraser-Thomas et al., 2008; Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Gould, 2013; IOC Medical Commission, 2005; Weber, 2009). Other indirect negative outcomes include loss of motivation and enjoyment, which leads to burnout, dropout, and decreased sport participation in young adulthood (Fraser-Thomas et al., 2008; Russell & Limle, 2013).
What You Can Do
If you're like me, you might see these outcomes and think, "My kid is never playing sports!" But that's a bit rash. I do still believe it is possible for children and youth to have incredible, life-changing, positive experiences through sport when it's done right. So, to finish, here are some things that you can do as a parent or adult involved in youth sport or with youth athletes to help reduce risk and increase the potential for positive youth development.
1. Be supportive and get involved
Go to practices and games and provide positive support regardless of the outcome, encourage but don't force participation, and volunteer as needed to ensure a positive sport environment. A lack of parental involvement or awareness leads to an increased risk of abuse from the unsupervised coach (Pinheiro et al., 2012)
2. Keep things in perspective
Less than 5% of elite youth athletes will ever earn a living through sport (Farstead, 2007) - keep the focus on fun and learning.
3. Leave the coaching to the coach
Kids need parents. Even if you are volunteering as a coach make sure you take the coach 'hat' off when you leave the field.
4. Preserve time for unstructured play alone and with friends or siblings
Let them play, explore, create, experiment, and make-believe without adults. And, sometimes, join in and remember what it's like to be a kid!
5. Change it up - sport, coach, level of competition
Specialization in a single sport is discouraged before adolescence (Anderson et al., 2000; Gould, 2010). Let your child experience different types of sport and physical activity at different levels and with different coaches and instructors. They will be more likely to learn new things with each new experience.
6. Educate yourself and be selective in your sport involvement
Increased knowledge and understanding leads to more informed decision making regarding children's participation in sport (Pinheiro et al., 2012). Get to know some sport science research and do your research on a sport organization before signing up. Do they have a Child Protection or Player Welfare Officer? What policies do they have in place to protect youth athletes (i.e. minimum age restrictions, limits on playing time...)? Do they follow the LTAD? Are they a positive and inclusive space? What are their organization's mission and values? What do other parents and players say about their experiences?
7. Know your priorities
What do you want your child/athlete to get out of this experience? What does your child/athlete want to get out of this experience? Are these the same thing? What are the risks/costs of your child's participation compared to the benefits?
8. Know your responsibilities
The IOC Medical Commission (2005) suggested a list of responsibilities for parents and guardians including the development of a strong support system and the provision of a balanced lifestyle including proper nutrition, adequate sleep, academic development, psychological well-being, and opportunities for socialization. Children have rights to the highest attainable standard of health, to education, to rest and leisure, to play and activities appropriate to their age and development level, and to protection from performing hazardous work (Farstead, 2007). Any person responsible for the care of a child (parents, coaches, administrators) has a responsibility to protect that child from all forms of violence, abuse, neglect, maltreatment, and exploitation.
9. Work with a Mental Performance Consultant or other professional
My job is to be a non-judgemental third party and help athletes to improve not only their performance but also their overall well-being. MPCs and other professionals can provide support to athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to ensure that the athletes needs are being met and rights are not being violated.
What was your youth sport experience like? How about your kids'? Are you doing something to help keep sport as a positive experience for all? If you or someone you know is struggling from a negative experience in sport please contact me - I'd love to help turn that around.
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Anderson, S. J., Greisemer, B. A., Johnson, M. D., Martin, T. J., McLain, L. G., Rowland, T. W., & Small, E. (2000). Intensive training and sports specialization in young athletes. Pediatrics, 106(1), 154-157.
Farstad, S. (2007) Protecting Children’s Rights in Sport: The Use of Minimum Age. Human Rights Law Commentary 3. Retrieved from: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/hrlc/documents/publications/hrlcommentary2007/childrensrightsinsport.pdf
Fraser-Thomas, J., Côté, J., & Deakin, J. (2008). Understanding dropout and prolonged engagement in adolescent competitive sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9(5), 645-662.
Gervis, M., & Dunn, N. (2004). The emotional abuse of elite child athletes by their coaches. Child Abuse Review, 13(3), 215-223.
Gould, D. (2010). Early sport specialization: A psychological perspective. .Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 81(8), 33-37.
IOC Medical Commission (2005) ‘Statement on Training the Elite Child Athlete.’ Retrieved from: http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Reports/EN/en_report_1016.pdf
Pinheiro, M. C., Pimenta, N., Resende, R., & Malcolm, D. (2012). Gymnastics and child abuse: an analysis of former international Portuguese female artistic gymnasts. Sport, Education and Society, 1-16.
Russell, W. D., & Limle, A. N. (2013). The relationship between youth sport specialization and involvement in sport and physical activity in young adulthood. Journal of Sport Behavior, 36(1), 82-98.
Schubring, A., & Thiel, A. (2014). Growth problems in youth elite sports. Social conditions, athletes’ experiences and sustainability consequences. Reflective Practice, 15(1), 78-91.
Stirling, A, & Kerr, G. (2010). Sport psychology consultants as agents of child protection. Journal of applied sport psychology, 22, 305-319.
Strachan, L., Côté, J., & Deakin, J. (2011). A new view: Exploring positive youth development in elite sport contexts. Qualitative research in sport, exercise and health, 3(1), 9-32.
Weber, R. (2009). Protection of Children in Competitive Sport: Some Critical Questions for London 2012. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 44(1), 55-69.