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The Dark Side of Youth Sports

Concerns with Elite and Specialized Sport Training

In recent years, organized youth sports participation has been normalized in western society and registration numbers have since peaked. The rise of organized sports has also triggered the rise of elite sports for children. Thousands of children per year join high-performance training programs and teams in an effort to become the best possible athlete and, in many cases, advance to the professional level. Whether these “elite youth sports” do more harm than good for the children playing them is debated by professionals, parents, coaches, and athletes. Having the opportunity to participate in high-performance sports as a child is a unique experience that holds the potential to also be very positive. However, over-involved adults, year-round sport specialization, financial commitments, a lack of freedom, and losing focus of why they are playing are all reasons why young children quit elite sports. In this sense, evidence would suggest that “elite” and “high-performance” sports are more detrimental than beneficial to today’s youth.

One potentially dangerous aspect of youth sports is the involvement of adults. From parents to coaches and trainers, adults have been creating a hostile environment in high-performance sports for decades. To begin, the attitude towards sports that plagues many elite youth coaches is a prime example of why children are opting out of playing altogether. During the Project Play Summit, when asked what if they wanted out of sports, one New York track star said, “I don't like coaches putting pressure on you and thinking that (you have to) win,” and many other children had similar feelings. Coaches are far too intense and focused on winning, which, often times, is not what children want or need. If this level of intensity and competitive drive is not shared by the children participating, the fun of sport is lost, and the children will play somewhere else or quit entirely. The culture of treating young children as professional athletes is encouraged by coaches and trainers, but it stems from the parents of these athletes. Parents can easily become over-involved in their child’s athletic endeavors, thus putting a staggering amount of pressure on kids to perform well and work hard. Painful examples of this can be seen in the documentary Trophy Kids where overbearing parents go to extreme lengths to push their kids to excellence. The father of football player, Justice Moore, was particularly emotionally abusive, which caused his teenage son to quit shortly after the documentary was filmed. Another, Andre Avery, was a very hands-on golf coach for his young daughter, Amari, and would even go so far as to sign her up for tournaments as “Tiger Avery” (after professional golfer, Tiger Woods). Despite having good intentions, Avery was also emotionally abusive toward his daughter. As shown in the film, this type of the pressure to perform can ruin sports as an experience for children and cause them to lose interest or potentially develop a distaste for sports that will impact their physical and mental health for years to come. Similarly, many athletes are forced into these more skilled and competitive leagues by their parents. Whether it is because the athlete is deemed too valuable by the team unit to quit or because parents are living vicariously through their child, forcing children into high-performance sports sends the message that their dreams and goals do not matter unless they are sports-related. The interest of the child is not considered, which often leads a child to resent their parent(s) and likely the sport they were forced into as well. Studies have shown a link between children being forced to play sports at a level for which they are less than capable and increased anxiety, stress levels, and depression rates. Conversely, children who actually have the desire and skill to play at the elite level often cannot afford it.

Through no fault of their own, children may also be forced to quit elite sports (or are kept out of sports entirely) for financial reasons. The privatized state of high-performance sports today promotes inequality and causes the fees and prices to play to “skyrocket.” Increased privatization allows corporations to capitalize on parents who want the best for their children by creating specialized training facilities and charging outlandish fees to use them. Only families with an appropriate amount of disposable income can take advantage of these programs, which puts any child whose parents cannot afford training at a disadvantage. This promotes the idea that the only kids worth training are those with money, and those are the kids that will thrive and continue to improve. While 55 percent of families can scarcely afford to play sports and 32 percent of families have gone into debt to pay to play, some children/families cannot afford to do even that. Unfortunately, children from lower-income families are half as likely to play team sports as those from families earning $100 000 or more. The disparity between those with disposable income and those without is made obvious: Kids with money get to play sports, and “families without resources are getting left behind.” To reiterate, children are forced to quit sports or deprived the chance to play based on their financial situation, suggesting that sports are for the wealthy and everyone else should find a way to keep up or quit.

As children are engulfed by the world of high-performance sports, they can lose sight of the reason(s) why they began playing in the first place (perhaps because they were having fun or to make new friends), and become extrinsically motivated. When children are “driven by outside factors,” their enjoyment of sports becomes contingent on such rewards. They are no longer playing for fun or to develop friendships, but for rewards, and if those rewards are removed, as is the child’s reason to play. Many children are complacent and only do what they think they “should” do in order to obtain whatever their reward or prize is, whether it be the adoration of a parent, monetary gain or something else. Because many extrinsically motivated "high-performance kids" have no real drive or desire to play, if they encounter any setbacks or failures they will not be equipped (mentally) to overcome them, or they may not even have an interest in overcoming them. Consequently, the children will not have the experience of dealing with failing at something they truly care about and will not have developed any proper coping mechanisms. The lack of ability to cope with failure will extend to all elements of a child’s life and will not only cause them to quit sports but likely anything that is difficult for years to come.

Over-specialization is one of the leading causes of the declination in youth sports registration rates. It can lead to a lack of diverse athletic experience, injury, and burnout. Essentially when children specialize in any sport the majority of their commitment is to that sport year-round, which prevents them from participating in other sports and activities in which they may have an interest. In addition, has been proven that the benefits one can gain from sports differ between sports and that there is merit in playing multiple sports. As well, having a diverse athletic range of motion from playing multiple sports protects against mobility and isolated overuse injuries. Injury in youth athletes is a complicated issue considering that they are still growing. Injuries caused by specialization are usually caused by a lack of mobility or by overuse. Statistically, children who specialize in only one sport are 18 percent more likely to get injured. The main issue with injury, however, is not that it occurs, it is that it occurs and many athletes do not tell anyone. 42 percent of child athletes have downplayed an injury before in order to continue playing, and 62 percent know someone who has done so, according to Safe Oregon Kids. When children play on their injuries it can cause serious and potentially irreversible harm to their bodies. This is especially true since many children who get injured are still growing. If a child sustains an injury near a growth plate and does not treat it, their muscle and bone development could be impacted. Although many injuries are treatable and/or minor, injuries caused by specialization (mobility and overuse) are almost always avoidable, and complications caused by hiding an injury are avoidable as well. Specialization also leads to burnout, which is one of the leading causes of youth sport dropout. It has been proven that athletes who specialize early in life are more likely to experience burnout (than those who do not specialize) and are less active as adults. Burnout typically involves a slightly worse quality of play while maintaining the same training, which is frustrating to an athlete. If burnout persists it can lead to depression, anxiety, weight loss, loss of motivation, and/or decreased self-interest. As well, if an athlete is not able to overcome their burnout, they may become frustrated with themselves or their sport and choose to quit rather than endure the mental and physical pain burnout causes.

The world of high-performance youth sports is a brutal one in that children have to deal with adult involvement, potentially their financial situation, losing their purpose, and the consequences of over-specialization just to play their sport. Playing sports will not always lead to negative consequences, however, countless changes need to be made to the institutions in which youth sports are played to enhance the experience for the children involved. With so much research about the harmful aspects of youth sports available, it is simple to know what needs to be done to improve the situation. Things as simple as parents and coaches finding a balance between motivating athletes and harassing them, and encouraging children to play multiple sports are steps in the right direction. The irony of the situation is that the people who will need to make the greatest strides towards improving the youth sports environment are the children who are currently being affected by it. Society can only hope that these children learn from their experiences and do a better job of creating major change than the current adults in charge.

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The Dark Side of Youth Sports
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