Professor Margaret Talbot, President of the International Council for Sport Science and Physical Education, once wrote that sports, dance and other challenging physical activities are distinctively powerful ways of helping young people learn to ‘be themselves’. She suggested that these sorts of activities - when they are appropriately presented - can teach people to question limiting presumptions they might have picked up, and come to view themselves and their potential in a new way.
I was reminded of Margaret Talbot’s words when I recently read Mina Samuels book Run Like a Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives. This book offers an interesting collection of stories of girls and women whose lives have been transformed by engagement with sports of different kinds.
Samuels, herself, wrote:
“Over the years that followed my "discovery" of running, my self-confidence grew, and feeding off the accomplishments I achieved in sports - setting new personal bests, winning a little local race, surviving the setbacks of injuries and marathons gone wrong - I discovered a capacity within myself that I never knew I had. I wasn't just physically stronger than I expected, I thought of myself as a different person, as someone with more potential, broader horizons, bigger possibilities. I saw that I could push myself and take risks, not just in sports, but elsewhere, too. The competition in sports, as in life, was not with someone else, it was with myself. To "compete" was to discover my own potential to do better, to hold my own self to a higher standard, to expect more of myself--and deliver.”
These comments highlight what has become one of the most important areas of research in youth sports: the role they can play in developing self-esteem.
Theories of self-esteem abound, but most refer to the degree to which an individual feels positively about him or herself. It generally arises when an individual succeeds, is praised, or experiences love from another, and is lowered by failure, harsh criticism and rejection. It is an important topic for those interested in education, heath and sports because of its associations with emotional adjustment, health behaviours (like drug taking, and unprotected and early sex), the ability to deal with life’s challenges, and general mental health and happiness.
As has been seen from the comments by Margaret Talbot and Mina Samuels, there is a widely held belief that the development of competence or expertise in sporting skills can lead to a sense of personal effectiveness and feelings of autonomy, and these are associated with the promotion of self-esteem. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that physical activities play a particularly powerful role in strengthening physical self-worth. The association between these activities and more general measures of self-esteem is more complex, although there seems little doubt that a positive perception of physical self worth is an important factor underlying more general positive perceptions of oneself, especially during childhood and early adolescence.
A number of studies offer support to the claim that sports and other physical activities can contribute to the development of self-esteem. For example, Canadian scientists found that sixth grade students boys and girls who were more physically active had considerably higher levels of self-esteem. This finding was corroborated by another Canadian team, who also highlighted the potentially harmful role that obesity plays in the equation. A study in Switzerland found that adolescents who participated in sports clubs had greater well-being, including being better socially adjusted, feeling less anxious, and generally being happier about their lives. Similar findings were reported in a study of Latino students, where participation in school sport was found to be significantly associated with self-esteem.
There seems little doubt that part of the potency of sports lies in their social setting. There is a substantial body of literature demonstrating the fundamental importance of social connectedness for healthy child and adolescent development, and sports offer a popular and engaging setting for social interactions. Involvement in team sports has been positively associated with social acceptance and a sense of belonging, especially where such involvement is characterised by positive coaching, progressive skill development and peer support.
Of course, the social setting of sports can exclude as well as include. There is now compelling evidence that boys’ and girls’ experiences of sports can be markedly different, and this can affect the contribution they can make to there self-esteem of players. Peer acceptance seems to be a significant factor in determining the relationship between sport participation and self-esteem, and girls can be particularly vulnerable to negative judgments. Competitive sports often exaggerate difficulties, and studies have found that many ‘feminine’ boys and girls benefit most from non-competitive physical activities.
So, note of caution ought to be sounded in case sports are assumed to be a panacea. Much of the literature on the most positive psychological outcomes associated with childhood and youth sports stress the absolute importance of positive experiences. It will surprise no one that bullying, excluding or abuse experiences will harm, rather than support the development of self-esteem, and well-being in general. Sadly, it will also not be a shock to learn that many children’s introductions to sports are far from life-enhancing.
The great devopmemental psychologist Jean Piaget argued that the foundations of self-esteem were laid between the ages of about 6 and 11 years of age. Importantly, this is also the time when children are most likely to be introduced to sports. It is impossible to over-state the importance of positive early sporting experiences for the development of both self-esteem and on-going participation in sports and other physical activities. Teachers, coaches and parents have a responsibility to ensure that these experiences ‘catch’ as many children as possible, and for this to happen they need to remember ‘three fundamental principles of child development’:
Problems arise when adults forget these principles, and kid themselves into thinking that they are coaching future Olympians or Superbowl stars. Ironically, evidence suggests that talented children are most likely to emerge when they are given time to develop, to play, and to remain children.
Children are not miniature adults, and their enjoyment of sports (and their self-esteem) can suffer when well-meaning adults forget this!
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