Kids and Sports

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

These days a lot of us are watching the weather-horizon for signs of spring. Spring is our time to thaw and grow. It’s also the time when many parents plant their kids in organizations and sports, repeating the patterns of their own childhood or hopeful of the growth that these activities may cultivate.

As you might suppose, a lot of research tells us that being active is a good idea and organized activities are uniquely positioned to foster positive youth development because many kids value this context more highly than school. For kids, self-esteem, body image and social skills can all benefit from participation in sports. Physical activity helps relieve stress and reduces the effects of conditions associated with depression. Kids who exercise are more likely to become adults who exercise. Experiences of skill development and mastery are essential nutrients for conditioning healthy life habits. Kids learn that you can’t win them all. They are less likely to smoke and take drugs and girls are less likely to get pregnant.

Sport is a rich medium for promoting development, but it can go badly too. Solid research shows that sport has the potential to increase anti-social tendencies and aggression. The suspension of moral reasoning, the cultural acceptance of violence and aggression in the sport world, and the focus on winning and gaining personal advantage body-check adaptive social learning. When our kids become ‘professionalized’ the full richness of their involvement may be reduced to goals that translate poorly to the bigger complexities of life.

The research shows that we’re naïve to think that sport builds character in and of itself. Teams, coaches and parents may reward demonstrating superiority over others, winning by any means necessary and revelling in the defeat of others. Trash talking is sometimes the first skill acquired.

Coaches and parents who encourage winning by any means might want to step back to fully look at their charge, as complex and apparently contradictory as that might seem. Coaches and parents do well to remind their kids that the other team is just like them, that winning or losing doesn’t change our inherent worth and that teaching how to genuinely congratulate and value the ‘winner’ or ‘loser’ is better work than teaching trash-talking.

Coaches of our youth who have a singular and emotionally driven need to win need some coaching themselves. A study of a soccer league found that a caring climate on the team is associated with kids having more fun, more positive attitudes and caring towards their coaches/teammates and a greater commitment to soccer. Parents and coaches who have high expectations and who are punitive and controlling will create the conditions that breed fear of failure and poorer performance.

We can’t just throw our kids into a sport and then step back and watch the benefits accrue. When sports are run like the Bloods vs. the Crips, what might you think is being cultivated?

The ‘how’ may be more important than the ‘what’ in cultivating sport’s benefits. The critical earliest years of exposure to sports should emphasize keeping it fun, kind and interesting. Keep it fun or kids will quit.

Nothing is simple. Ongoing parental participation, support and easy talk about the life lessons revealed at practices and games, recitals and competitions, are critical.

And when our kids are nurtured well in sport or dance or competition they can savour cleanly the friends they make, the applause and laughter at the dance recital, almost winning the final, the medal hanging on the bedroom wall, pretending to be Sid the Kid or Hayley Wickenheiser – what beats that?