Sports and Positive Youth Development

The role of competition in the formation of youth character.

Posted Jul 28, 2019

On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.– General Douglas MacArthur

General MacArthur’s observation reflects the widely held belief that participation in sports not only strengthens the body but also strengthens character. At West Point, this notion is so firmly entrenched that prior to taking the field its football players place their hand on a plaque reflecting the importance of sports in officer development.  Attributed to General George C. Marshall, the plaque reads “I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.” Implicit in this demand is the notion that football prepares officers to be physically tough and to possess character strengths of grit, determination, and bravery.

While this may be true for West Point football players training to be Army officers, a more general question may be whether organized sports are linked to character development in children. Certainly, parents of the millions of children enrolled in youth sports believe this to be true.  But what have psychologists learned about the nexus between youth sports and character development?

Image by Merio from Pixabay
Source: Image by Merio from Pixabay

I had the opportunity recently to be part of a panel at the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC) National Training Seminar that explored the topic of character and positive youth development. My co-panelists, Dr. Andrea Ettekal, Texas A&M University, and Dr. Amanda Visek, George Washington University, and I focused much of our discussion on the role of sports in shaping and molding character in children. Does participation in organized sports indeed shape character in a positive manner, as General MacArthur suggests?  And, if so, what are the key elements that enable this to occur?

The importance of character in human achievement can be put into perspective by considering what I call the “25-75 Rule.” [1] By this, I am referring to the observation based on over 100 years of psychological research that measures of cognitive talent, such as IQ, account for at best about 25 percent in the variation of performance on most tasks.  This leaves the majority of variance unaccounted for, and positive psychologists are demonstrating that character comprises some portion of this remaining variance.  A good example is the concept of grit, developed by MacArthur Fellow Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania.  Defined as the passionate pursuit of long-term goals, grit has been found to contribute to a number of different behavioral outcomes.[2]

Dr. Ettekal addressed the issue of sports and positive youth development in the context of military children.  Military children face special challenges, including frequent family separations, added responsibilities while a parent is deployed away from home, frequent moves, and the possibility and, sadly sometimes the reality, of grief and loss when a parent is killed or seriously wounded in combat. Ettekal’s research shows that participation in organized sports makes children feel that they matter, offers social support, presents opportunities to lead others, gives a feeling of belongingness, and builds self-efficacy.[3] Her work suggests that sports build both performance character (grit, self-regulation, etc.) and moral character (integrity, fairness, empathy, loyalty, etc.).

While Ettekal acknowledges that sports can result in negative outcomes such as stress or aggressive behavior, if done right it promotes positive youth development. Some elements of doing it right include positive competition versus a win at all costs attitude, hiring and training coaches who emphasize and explicitly teach character development through their sport, educating parents to help their children understand the character lessons that sports provides, and playing for the right reasons including challenge, fun, and for physical and mental health.[4]

The idea of engaging in sports for fun was addressed by Dr. Visek. Visek and her colleagues engaged children in brainstorming sessions to learn what the components of fun were from the children’s own perspective.  The results are fascinating. Organized into a cluster map, they classified 81 determinates of fun into 11 more general fun factors. These 11 facets included positive coaching, team rituals, learning and improving, team friendships, and positive team dynamics.[5]  Fun in terms of transient positive emotions (elation or emotional “high”) was not a primary determinant of fun in the context of sports. Rather, aspects of sports that addressed engagement or meaning and purpose (trying hard, learning and improving) were principal contributors to fun in sports. This is congruent with findings from positive psychology that show that engagement and a sense of meaning and purpose in life are more important determinants to life satisfaction than simple, hedonic pleasures.

Visek’s research also debunks several myths about sports participation in children. For example, winning was only ranked number 40 of the 81 determinants of fun. And smiling and goofing around are not reliable indicators of fun. Rather, children who appear focused and are developing their athletic skills are having more fun than those who joke around.  Perhaps the most important debunked belief is the cultural notion that fun for girls involves the social aspects of the game such as forming friendships, in contrast to boys, who are thought to derive fun from competition and skill development.  In fact, Visek’s research shows that contrary to popular belief, what is most fun for young athletes does not vary much by their sex, age, or level at which they play. School administrators, coaches, and parents would benefit from learning more about Visek’s findings and children would benefit if these findings were integrated into the design and management of youth sports.

Dr. Duckworth gave a keynote speech at the MCEC seminar the day following the panel. Duckworth addressed 800 K-12 educators and 120 teenaged children on the topic of character development. Her comments, although not specifically directed at sports, were relevant to this discussion.  Duckworth posits three factors that build character: (1) Mindset – a belief that you can experience positive growth and change, (2) skill building, and (3) a supporting environment. Sports can contribute to all three of these factors. It can foster a positive mindset by allowing children to learn firsthand that they can improve on difficult tasks. Sports allow children to build both physical and social skills through expert practice. Duckworth emphasizes that expert practice – sometimes called deliberate practice – is not “fun” in the usual sense of the word. Rather, it is fun in the ways that Visek finds in her research. Duckworth’s third component of character growth requires school administrators, coaches, and parents to craft a positive environment in which children may derive the positive benefits of sports.

Framing sports as an opportunity to build a growth mindset, to engage in challenging and difficult skill development, and to be part of a team with positive organizational values may begin to shape the type of character that General MacArthur and General Marshall had in mind when thinking about sports and character development in soldiers.        

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

[1] Matthews, M. D., Lerner, R. M., & Annen, H. (2019). Non-cognitive amplifiers of human performance:  Unpacking the 25/75 rule.  In M. D. Matthews and D. M. Schnyer (eds.), Human Performance Optimization: The science and ethics of enhancing human capabilities. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007).  Grit: Perseverance and passion for long term goals.   Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087-1101.

[3] Opportunities to lead represents one of three components of character development in youth. For further discussion see my blog post “On Teaching and Developing Character: A systematic approach to cultivating positive traits,” May 27, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/head-strong/201805/teaching-and-...

[4] For a more thorough description of Ettekal’s ideas on positive youth development in sports, see Agans, J. P., Ettekal, A. V., Erickson, K., & Lerner, R. M. (2016). Positive youth development through sport: A relational developmental systems approach. In Positive youth development through sport (pp. 34-44). Abingdon, UK: Routledge. 

[5] For a full list and a more scientific discussion of the findings, see Visek, A. J., Achrati, S. M., Mannix, H. M., McDonnell, K., Harris, B. S., & DiPietro, L. (2015). The fun integration theory: toward sustaining children and adolescents sport participation. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 12(3), 424-433.