The Truth About Youth Sports: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

The Truth About Youth Sports: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

Children play sports all over the world. From a universal beloved sport like soccer to a more regionally popular sport such as cricket, we love our sports. 75% of American families with children have at least 1 child participating in a form of youth sports, meaning that almost 50 million children are participating in youth sports each year in the United States. (Wow-that’s a lot of half time orange slices☺).

In the past few weeks the national media has had a field day with two athletes playing youth sports.

The Good

In the first story, a high school state champion wrestler did the unthinkable when immediately after losing the State Championship, he walked over to the dying father of the young man who just pinned him and reached out and gave the father a handshake. The handshake then turned into a full embrace.

Leading up to the match, it was made public that one of the athlete’s fathers was dying of cancer and his son had set a personal goal and made the pledge to his father that he would win the state title for him.

By sheer determination the young man pinned the state champ in the first round. After the match, the young man who lost had the dignity and self-awareness to set aside the pain of defeat and recognize the serenity in the moment where a dying father watched his son win a state championship.

What an awesome demonstration of sportsmanship. That is inspiring.

The question begging to be asked is “Where did he learn this level of respect and dignity?”

His answer “It just came straight from the heart.”

Did participating in youth sports as a child teach this young man to respond to adversity with such grace and humility?

Maybe, it’s hard to tell by this short clip. What IS very clear is that winning wasn’t everything to this young athlete.

Remember the old saying “Behind every strong man, stands a stronger woman.”?

I’d like to take this one step further, behind strong children stand strong parents.

Recently I interviewed a couple who participated in youth sports, excelled and went on to collegiate athletics. They both coach now at the high school level in their perspective sports. Here’s what they had to say about supporting children in youth sports.

Sports offers children the chance to experience a strong sense of unity, feeling what it’s like to be part of a team, overcoming adversity, and how to win with humility and lose with dignity.”

After this statement I asked them “You don’t see any injuries in band or debate, and you also don’t see kids going out to intentionally hurt each other. Why not just put them in non-contact, less physical activities?”

Their responses surprised me.

We have a daughter who is just now getting into singing and theater. I’m just as proud of her for getting on a stage that I am my other children for playing sports. Sports offers a unique challenge of battling physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. Let’s say you’re wrestling and you keep getting pinned, or you’re running cross country and you keep getting passed by other runners, there comes a time when you physically push your body further than you ever have and you ask your body to do things it’s never done. You do that once or twice and you get hooked. That builds self-esteem. Pushing your body, overcoming physical pain to reach a new goal creates confidence. I’m not sure that’s offered anywhere else.”

Several research studies show the positive impacts of sports on emotional health and positive well being. Furthermore, there has been considerable research linking well-being to less stress, lower rates of depression and heart disease.

Reviews have concluded that the team sport environment helps ease the psychological symptoms of ill-being and loneliness. While reducing physical and mental symptoms, team sports has shown to improve self-esteem and social interaction. In November 2014, The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health quantitative study involving 1633 children in grades four to six, found that active leisure such as sport, was related to well-being, while passive leisure, such as watching TV, were not.

Results of this clinical study also theorized that “if structured appropriately, organized sport can promote optimal development in youth.” (18)

Recent findings conclude however that sports do reach a point of diminishing returns. Results indicate that overall well-being and mental health begin to decline after 14 hours per week of sport participation by adolescents.

Simply the act of participating in youth sports does not always bring out the best in us.

The Bad

In the same week, I saw this YouTube clip where a young softball catcher elbows two opposing players as they came across home plate. These malicious elbows result in knocking the opposing players off balance and sending them tumbling into the dirt.

I don’t know either of these athletes. That being said, their approach to sportsmanship seem to be vastly different.

I should not pretend to guess what type of person this young woman is on or off of the field. In the heat of competition she acted out of malicious intent. Hopefully she’s paid attention to the media firestorm and now understands that hurtful, malicious behavior is unnecessary.

What’s most appalling though is the umpire did nothing about it. The coaches did nothing about it. Her parents did nothing about it.

What would have caught an equal amount of media attention would have been if this young athlete’s parents had pulled her out of the game, or had her coach benched her for the rest of the game. Where were the adults in her life?

Speaking from my own experiences in youth sports, had I done something like this (let’s be honest, which as kids we all did) my father would have come out of the stands and dragged me off the field by the hair on my head. He would have required an apology to the opposing players and would have then promptly escorted me to the car with some extra help from his right foot.

The BAD here is that the numerous adults involved in the situation appeared to let this go. This was a missed teaching opportunity, not only for the catcher but for each girl on the field.

The umpire could have stopped the game, brought her coaches over, asked them to calm the situation by taking her out of the game, and lastly if nothing else the umpire could have simply ejected her himself.

That would have taught each young woman on the field, and observing in the dugout that this type of play had no place on the field…ever.

Instead, what was really taught that day? That cheating is okay? That hurting someone to gain a competitive advantage is part of sports?

What are we teaching our children?

There are thousands of messages sent to children from thousands of coaches across the world each day. What are we taking the time to teach? What message are we spending most of our time delivering? So many of the best coaches have also been great teachers i.e. John Wooden, Dean Smith and Pat Summit. These coaches taught respect, discipline, team work and having fun.

Parents and coaches have an obligation to teach children what’s most important in playing sports.

Sports that when approached the right way can prepare children for future obstacles down the road in life.

In 2012, The New York Times ran an online debate entitled “Can Playing Ball be Bad for Kids?”. The online debate addressed many of today’s issues in the sporting environment that appear to be doing more harm than good. Coaches and parents discussed topics such as injuries, burnout, over-scheduling, and pressures to succeed.

Hall of Fame basketball coach-John Wooden
Hall of Fame basketball coach-John Wooden

Opinions varied, and the overwhelming response was positive. However, there was also dominant theme that sports can negatively impact the physical and psychological health of our youth and their families.

Since this initial controversial debate, further debates and studies have been completed regarding the increased concerns and cases of concussions, addictions to pain killers, steroid abuse and other increased probability of injury. The physical concerns is a topic for another day, but the article also addressed the mental health impact on athletes and their families.

The article considers the time commitment, financial obligations, and the negative impact a losing team or an overly competitive coach can have on a young athlete. Further research is needed to correctly assess the impact of youth sports on the non-participants i.e. parents and siblings.

Here is the link to the full article, Understanding how organized youth sport may be harming individual players within the family unit.

The Ugly

Remember the Columbian soccer goalie who was shot and killed after the World Cup for not stopping a ball that was kicked back to him by a teammate? That goal ended up being the difference between a draw and the loss.

He returned to his home country only to be shot by his fellow country men grieving the loss of a match to the United States. This is an outrageous example I admit, but again, as adults we take sports too seriously. Sports is never a matter of life and death.

I witnessed the following ugly event this past fall, while helping with my 6 year old’s tee ball game.

Over zealous parents can make sports ugly
Over zealous parents can make sports ugly

A six year old boy stood in front of me, gripping the all too big aluminum bat with his small, sweaty hands. Most parents were cheering their children on. Except for this young child’s father.

He yelled “If you throw the bat one more time, I’m taking you home.” Sure enough, the child hit the ball and began to excitedly run to first base. Except he didn’t make it there.

His father stopped him, grabbed him underneath the left elbow, turned him around and screamed a profanity at him. The father then escorted the boy off of the field, lambasting him about not laying his bat down on the ground after hitting the ball.

Parents and children alike looked on in horror and disbelief as this tee ball game became ugly.

Parents yelled at the father to let his son go and to let him finish playing the game. The boy began to cry as he was dragged towards the car.

The second base man reluctantly threw the ball to first base to officially get the boy out.

Parents acting as coaches, umpires or fans make sports ugly at times. It’s us the adults, that scream at each other from the stands or throw things on to the field that make things really ugly. We’re teaching the youth by our example that every Saturday it’s okay to stand up and yell profanities at athletes and referees at a football game.

If we acted like this at work, we wouldn’t have jobs. Again, we take sports too seriously and when we as parents engage in this activity, we’re definitely not teaching our kids very good behavior.

The Verdict?

In the words of the Hall of Fame college basketball coach John Wooden

“You can’t live a perfect day, without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”

This is what youth sports should be about. Helping children who need it. Teaching children life skills and making them part of a team, who otherwise may never experience it.

What are we teaching our children? Are there really life lessons to be learned in youth sports?

The couple that coach high school sports think so.

“I coach kids who live to play. They come from broken homes and broken lives. They find purpose in sports.”

I agree. Children find themselves in sports. They develop character, strength and leadership when in the presence of adults who are there to teach, mold and have fun. Children seek refuge in sports. Refuge from home life, abuse, bullying and fear. It’s our obligation as adults to act like adults. We should approach coaching and cheering with the same dignity and respect we take to work each day.

Dealing with pressure, overcoming adversity, leading by example, winning with humility, losing with dignity, finding yourself?

Sounds like youth sports can teach us plenty.


COMING UP NEXT WEEK: ““Athletes, Not Role Models”

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