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Sport and Competition

Are Youth Sports Too Stressful?

Sport-related anxiety can rob youngsters of the benefits of participation.

Sport psychologists have used a variety of approaches to measure the levels of stress experienced by young athletes. Several studies used telemetry (sending a radio signal to a receiver) to record children’s physiological responses in different sport situations. These studies have shown that high levels of arousal can occur. For example, heart rates averaging nearly 170 beats-per-minute have been recorded in male Little League Baseball players while they were at bat.

Another approach has been to ask young athletes to fill out questionnaires assessing how anxious they are at a particular moment. In a series of studies conducted at UCLA, Drs. Tara Scanlan and Michael Passer obtained anxiety ratings from boys and girls immediately before and after soccer matches. They found that most children reported rather low levels of anxiety at both points in time. However, about 20% of the kids reported high levels of stress before the game, and many of them reported high anxiety after games that their teams had lost.

How stressful are sports compared with other activities in which children participate?

To answer this important question, Drs. Julie Simon and Rainer Martens obtained anxiety ratings from 9- to 14-year-old boys before they performed in different activities, including individual and team sports, school tests, and playing an instrument in a music contest. The researchers found that none of the sports they studied aroused as much anxiety as music solos. Moreover, wrestling was the only sport that was more anxiety-arousing than classroom tests in school. Of the various sports studied, individual sports caused the highest levels of pre-event anxiety. But, like the UCLA researchers, Simon and Martens reported that some of the young athletes experienced extremely high levels of stress before competing, regardless of the sport.

So what’s the verdict? Are youth sports too stressful?

Taken together, research results suggest that sport participation is not exceedingly stressful for most children, especially in comparison with other activities in which children have their performance evaluated. But it is equally clear that the sport setting is capable of producing high levels of stress for many of the 68 million youngsters who play sports in the United States. If, as some authorities have emphasized, only 5-10% of the participants experience excessive stress, this would involve a huge number of children and adolescents. Instead of finding athletic competition enjoyable and challenging, these young athletes undoubtedly endure anxiety and discomfort, which can have harmful psychological, behavioral, and health-related effects.

How can you tell if a young athlete is overly stressed?

A little nervousness before competition is a perfectly normal part of athletic competition. On the other hand, extremely high levels of stress can destroy enjoyment and performance. Warning signs of excessive stress include the following:

  • Loss of appetite.
  • Disturbed sleep patterns.
  • Physical maladies like headaches, upset stomach, or skin problems.
  • Consistent inability to perform as well in competition as during practices.
  • Desire to avoid the sport situation or to quit.

When these kinds of symptoms appear, parents should intervene and attempt to help their kids to cope with sport-related anxiety.

How can you help to combat sport-related anxiety in young athletes?

  • The Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports is a research-based video that emphasizes skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun. It includes a segment that’s designed to assist parents in teaching coping skills to their kids.
  • To access the video, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website.

More from Frank L. Smoll Ph.D.
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