Wildernice/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wildernice/Wikimedia Commons

What’s the biggest problem in youth sports?

I’m often asked that question in media interviews. My response is the “professionalization” of kids’ athletics. To understand what this means, it’s necessary to examine the difference between professional and developmental models of sport.

Professional sport is a huge commercial enterprise where success is measured in wins and dollars.

In the professional model, the major goals are to entertain, and ultimately, to make money. Financial success is of primary importance and depends heavily on a product orientation, namely, winning. Is this wrong? Certainly not! As a part of the entertainment industry, professional sports have tremendous value in societies around the world.

In a developmental model, sport is an arena for learning where success is measured in terms of personal growth and development.

Kids are not pros! The developmental model of sport has a far different focus. As its name suggests, the goal is to develop the individual. The most important outcome is not wins or dollars, but rather, the quality of the experience for young athletes. In this sense, sport participation is an educational process whereby youngsters can learn to cope with realities they will face in later life. Although winning is sought after, it is by no means the primary goal. Profit is not measured in terms of dollars and cents, but rather, in terms of the skills and personal characteristics that are acquired.

So, what’s the problem?

Most of the negative consequences of youth sports occur when uninformed adults make a big mistake: They impose a professional model on what should be a recreational and educational experience for children and adolescents. When excessive emphasis is placed on winning, it’s easy to lose sight of the needs and interests of the young athletes. This common error is what I call the “professionalization” of youth sports.

Why do kids play sports?

Scientific surveys conducted in the United States and Canada indicate that young athletes most often list their sport goals in the following order of importance:

  • To have fun.
  • To improve their skills and learn new skills.
  • To be with their friends or make new friends.
  • For thrills and excitement.
  • To win.
  • To become physically fit.

The findings indicate that the primary goal of professional athletes and many adults―winning―is far less important to children. What really matters to kids is having fun! Certainly, winning adds to the fun, but we sell sports short if we insist that winning is the most important ingredient. In fact, studies have shown that when children were asked where they'd rather be—warming the bench on a winning team or playing regularly on a losing team—about 90 percent of them chose playing over winning. The message is clear: The enjoyment of playing is more important to children than the satisfaction of winning. (For more information, see my Psychology Today blog titled “Winning is Everything: Myth vs. Reality.”)

How can coaches and parents help to promote fun?

The basic right of young athletes to have fun should not be neglected. Here are some tips for ensuring this right.

  • Be upbeat and excited about almost everything that happens.
  • Find something to value and encourage in each athlete.
  • Consistently reinforce indications of skill improvement, effort, and good teamwork. Say, for example, “I really like how accurate you’re getting.” or “Way to go! You gave a lot of effort.” or “It’s great to hear you encouraging your teammates!”
  • Look for opportunities to keep things in perspective. For example, if a youngster complains about losing a game, you might say, “Hey, I know how you feel, but everybody loses sometime. The important thing is to do your best and have fun.”
  • Ask the young athlete, “Did you have fun?” Hopefully the answer will be “yes,” and you’ll see evidence of the joy of playing.

Do you want to learn more about coaching and parenting young athletes?

The Mastery Approach Coaching and Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports are research-based videos that emphasize skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun. To access the videos, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website.

About the Authors

Ronald Smith

Ronald Smith, Ph.D., is a University of Washington clinical sport psychologist who specializes in developing and evaluating interventions designed to improve the functioning of athletes.

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