Nearly every child, at one point or another in his young and impressionable life, has particiapated
in sports. Whether it is a pick-up basketball game at a playground after school, or organized
Little League, complete with ninety-foot bases and replicated major league uniforms, sports play
an intricate part of the development and maturation of a youngster. Beneath it’s presumed purity,
however, lies an occasionally seedy underbelly. Win-at-all cost coaches and tyrannical,
overbearing parents have turned this innocent recreational activity into a nightmarish hell for
some juvenile participants, and have left many wondering if sports is a helpful or a harmful stage
in a child’s life.
Conventional wisdom tells us that the greatest rewards obtained by sport participation is
how it enhances ones growth physically. A valid point, yes, but that cannot be the only reason. If
so, how can you explain coaches and parents who take their amateur atheletes out for greasy
pizza or fattening ice cream the minute after the last pitch is thrown or the final goal is scored? In
a recent survey conducted by Sean Slade in the March 1999 addition of The Journal of Physical
Education, Recreation, and Dance, 250 families who had children in grades three through five
were asked a simple question: “Why do you want your child playing sports as they grow up?”
Astoundingly, the responses were three-to-one in favor of the mental, rather than the physical
benefits that sports has to offer(Slade 1999).
Parents stated that aside from buidling muscles and strength, sports gives children a
chance to learn about sportsmanship, teamwork, persistence, fair play, self-esteem, and above all,
enjoyment. Sports also offers a wide variety of mental and social gifts. Children learn from early
age that unless everyone participates and everyone succeeds, the ultimate goal cannot be reached.
And for those who were a bit down on themselves because their grades are not as a high as a
friend or a sibling, their self-esteem can be boosted by a good perfornance on the field. Even kids
crippled by severe shyness can emerge from their shell by spending hours in the dugout or on the
sidelines with their peers. But above all, participating in sports can lead to hours and hours of
unbridled enjoyment. After spending seven hours in a stuffy classroom, their is no better way of
blowing off steam than by hitting a baseball, sinking a layup, or running a touchdown into the
endzone. Children get a chance to emulate heroes like Jordan, McGwire, and Moss every time
they step onto their respective of field of play.
Maureen Weiss, PhD, of the University of Oregon, also agrees that sports do more than
enhance biceps and up hand-eye coordination. Said Weiss, “Physical activity and sports have
tremendous potential to enhace children’s self-esteem and motivation.” Weiss’s research
consisitently proves that self-esteem and perceptions of physical ability can predict achievement
behavior, motivations and positive effects(APA 1996).
Ronald M. Jeziorski, an educational psychologist who consults curricular programs in
Santa Clara, California, also sees the posivite effect sports has on a children’s psychological
well-being. Jeziorski surveyed eighteen professionals in social work, law enforcement, and
education on the effect of sports. “Across the board”, said Jeziorksi, “they all said that
participants in sports earn better grades, behave better in the classroom, have fewer behavior
problems outside the classroom, drop out significantly less, and attend school on a regular basis
with fewer unexcused absences” (Theeboom, de Knop, Weiss 1995).
Mental gifts aside, let us not forget that the physical aspect of sports is extremely
important, especially now more than ever. In the age of Super Nintendo and Playstation, rarely do
children long for enjoyment beyond the confines their bedroom. In fact, the proportion of
overweight teens has grown from 15 to 21 percent in the last decade alone, according to the
National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is worse is that even in schools, kids
are not receiving the proper physical attention that they require. In a 1994 study of twenty-nine
elementary schools and thirteen middle schools in Harris County, Texas, only 8.5 percent of all
elementary students are taking part in vigourous activites during physical education classes.
Middle school students are not doing much better: a paltry 16.1 percent take part, much lower
than the standards developed by the National Office of Disease Prevention and Health
Promotion, which set the bar at 50% back in 1991(APA 1996). In cases like these, the only way
children get any real physical actvity in via organized or intramural sports. Children who play
physically taxing sports like basketball and hockey must be in good shape. Aside from layups and
penalty shots, the atheletes also take part in strectching drills, as well as a various amount of
running actvities. Those who play football need to have great physical strength. Children who
play sports like these become involved in very disciplined, very regimented fitness activities that
in most cases, stays with them forever.
While baseball, basketball, and football are the most popular sports for youths to get
involved in, other sports are growing in great lenghts, as well. Thanks in part to the unbelivable
play of Tiger Woods, many have discovered the wonders of golf, while the success of the
Women’s World Cup soccer team has soccer growing at a meteoric rate. But would you believe
that children on the blacktop streets of Harlem are playing…squash? Yes, you read that right-
squash. George Polsky, a 31 year-old New York native who used to teach middle and high
school, started a program called StreetSquash, which he adapted from a similar program
currently being utilized in Boston. Like other sports, squash does not just provide nourishment
for the players physical health, but their mental health, as well. Polsky makes every StreetSquash
practice mandatory, as well as all StreetSquash events, which occasionally inlcudes community
service. The program also makes the kids sign a contract, and requires all parents to spend at
least thirty minutes a night helping their children with their homework. This is just another
example of the benefits of sport(Fountain 2000).
Loyalty is another key element one picks up while engaging in sports. A pitcher cannot
survive without the support of his catcher. A running back is nothing if his offensive line is not
steamrolling over the defense, giving him room to run. And a goalie would be worn out if the
defense was not constantly keeping the ball or puck out of the defensive zone. Children see how
much they need to depend on each other in order to succeed, and this is something that no doubt
carries on into their future, on and off the field(Weiss, Smith, Theeboom 1996).
Psychology is also a very instrumental part of sport. Every single team, from the lavish
New York Yankees to the cash strapped Pittsburgh Pirates, have sport psychologists on board to
occasionally coach players through the rigors of a long and frequently dissappointing
season(Page and Tucker 1994). While I’m hard pressed to name any Little League teams who
have such a person, the psychology one learns in sports can be a helpful tool when approaching
real life problems. Robert N. Singer, PhD, is the former president of APA’s Division 47 (Exercse
and Sport) and chair of the department of exercise and sport sciences at the University of Florida
in Gainesville, notes the coorelation, citing a job interview as an example of fleshing out this
technique. “Just as an athelete might mentally prepare for a sports event, the patient could
rehearse in advance what he’s going to say and how he’s going to say it, as well as anticipate
questions that might come up and how’s he’s going toanswer them.” Singer also notes that this
kind of visualization reduces stress, builds confidence and ultimately leads to better performance
(APA 1996). Just think how enhanced this visualization can be if learned at an early age.
Children who play sports not only up their self-esteem, but they become familiar with quasi-high
pressure situations, which is something that we all have to deal with, at one point or another.
Sports has a plethora of gifts to offer all of its particpants, but as mentioned before, not all
lessons nor experiences that one garners while playing sports is all very good.
Participation is at an all time high, with some estimates reaching heights as robust as forty
million children(Dowell, Drummond, Grace, Harrington, Monroe, and Shannon 1999). But the
problem is not that players are multiplying like Gremlins in a swimming pool. It’s how the sports
are being played. The days of simple organized sports- two games a week, practice one day a
week, and the field being two miles away from the farthest family- are gone. In its place, travel
and tournament teams, who rarely play in the same city more than once, have things harried for
the typical working class family, not to mention exspensive. Club dues, clinics, camps, travel,
and hotel can cost as much as $3,000. I remember when my parents, for a mere forty bucks,
would sign me up to play baseball. For the forty dollars, I would get a Major League-looking
uniform, a fifteen game schedule, nice fields to play on, and more times than not, a nice trophy
when the season was over. But things are not simple anymore. Youth sports have not only risen
in terms of participation, but in expectation, as well. According to Time magazine, some coaches
begin recruiting talented youngsters as young as eight. While this may sound good on the surface,
these kids, in a way, lose some of their childhood. They spend every minute of free time, whether
it be after school, summer vacations, or weekends, at clinics, practices, and cutthroat
tournaments. For many of these kids, sports no longer becomes a wholesome hobby. It becomes a
full time job, complete with stress, guilt, and a truckload of pressure. Even long-standing family
holidays, such as Christmans and Thanksgiving, dissapate into long road trips and treks to
Some parents are happy that sports fills up their children’s idle time. If they’re on the
field doing laps or shagging flies, they are not on the streets, doing drugs and chugging alcohol.
But overbearing coaches and occasionally deranged parents occasionally mar the game for the
most important people- the children. The military police had to be called in to stop a parents
brawl at a “tinymite” football game in Repton, Ala., last October. That same year, an Okalahoma
man was sentenced to twelve days in jail for attacking a fifteen year-old umpire. I’m sorry, but
who exactly are the children here?
Coaches are also a cause of some of the negativity found in youth sports. On the surface,
coaches appear to be the salt of the earth. Men and women who work forty hours a week come
home and coach a Little League baseball, football, hockey team, etc. And since they are all
voulnteers, they get no money for their service. But a problem can arise. While most of these
folks may know their respective sports very well, they do not know the proper way to get through
to a young and fragile little child. “It’s one of the largest volunteer forces in our country,” says
Rainer Martens PhD. Dr. Martens runs a coaching education program in Champaign, Ill. “Yet we
trun our kids over to someone who we know nothing about”, he adds. “We think nothing about
whether this person knows how to protect the physical safety of the child, or can communicate
the values we think are important.” Coaches, even the nicest, most supportive ones, can
inadvertantly harm a child psychologically or physically, simply because they do not know the
proper way to communicate. But this is a problem can may be quickly eradicated. Tom Crawford,
a psychologist and motor-development expert who directs coaching for the U.S. Olympic
Committee, has founded an intervention program called Coach Effictiveness Training(CET). The
three hour program has been administered to some 12,000 youth coaches, and it emphasizes the
coach’s effect on the children’s personal, social, and skill development, while putting less
emphasis on winning. “The idea is that winning takes care of itself if your atheletes are
well-trained, not afraid of failure, enjoy their teammates, and have a good relationshoip with the
coach”, says Crawford. Results thus far have been ecouraging. Normally, about forty percent of
all children who play youth sports drop out each year. On teams with a coach who has completed
CET, thr drop out rate is only six percent(APA 1996).
The CET may curb the aggressive coaches, but how will that other monster, the parent, be
slayed? I was lucky. My father taught me the game of baseball, but never pressured me to play.
He taught me to love it, and therefore, I loved playing. If I made an error or struck out, he was the
first one there to tell me it was okay, and that I would have plenty more chances to be the hero.
Unfortunately, not all children are as lucky. Mike Finneran had to cancel his spring baseball
season for third-through eigth-grade boys in Naperville, Ill. due to parents who were constantly
berating their children, disputing every umpire’s call, and peppering their speech with the
F-word. “I’ve had three heart-attacks, triple bypass surgery, and a stroke,” says the fifty-year old
Finneran. “I don’t need the stress of these guys fighting”(Lord 2000). Finneran is not the only
youth organizer stressing over the sudden rash of parental violence. A midget football game
ended when a brawl erupted involving a 100 players, coaches, parents, and fans. While attacks on
youth league umpires have become such a frequent occurrence that the National Association of
Sports Officials recently began offering a new benefit to its 19,000 members: assualt
According to Fred Engh, president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports and author
of Why Johnny Hates Sports, the children are the biggest victims. In a recent survey condcuted by
the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, nearly half of the young atheletes admitted to being
yelled at or insulted. Seventeen point five reported being hit, kicked, or slapped, while eight point
two were pressured into harming others. No wonder why seven of ten kids drop sports prior to
their thirteenh birthday(Lesyk 2000). “You’d never hear this at a child’s piano recital: ‘Erin, you
bum, you can never do anything right!’” said Engh, who likens the unrealistic expectations adults
place on young atheletes to child abuse(Lord 2000).
Some feel that parental guidance and pressure can yield productive results. For example,
Tiger Woods was pushed by his parents at an early age to play golf, and as you can see, it worked
out pretty well. But there can be others who do not work out. Jennifer Capriati is a perfect
example. Once a beaming fourteen old armed with killer backhand and six-figure endorsement
deal, Capriati bottomed out when she was busted for both drug possession as well as shoplifting.
She tried to stage a comeback in 1996, but withdrew herself from Wimbledon, claiming that she
was not ready, and hasn’t staged another since. She is, as one sports writer put it, “the poster
child for sports gone astray”(Kantrowitz 2000).
Todd Marinovich is another example. In 1991, Marinovich fulfilled his father’s lofty
expectations by inking a three-year deal worth $2.25 million with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders.
Marinovich’s transition to the NFL, however, was anything but seamless. By 1995, knee inuries
and rumors of failed drug tests (Marinovich denies them) found the former first round draft pick
making sixty dollars a night playing with a Los Angeles rock band called Scurvy. “At this point”,
he told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “I just want to be able to get the knee well enough to play
basketball and surf again”(Kantrowitz 2000).
How does this happen? How do children go from sport prodigies one minute to
All-American busts the next? Sean McCann, a psychologist with the U.S. Olympic commitee
says the problem is that to many families center around one child rather than the whole family. In
these child-centered families, the star athelete grabs all the attention- as well as complete control
of the entire family. Everything else- the parents marriage, other siblings-are all secondary. All
of a sudden, young atheletes aren’t just playing sports for fun or personal enjoyment, but they’re
playing so the whole family won’t be let down, a pressure that can occasionally suffocate a child.
Psychologist Shane Murphy, who has worked with Olympians in the past, recallshow his star
athelets would buckle under ever-mounting parental pressure. “I can’t even count how many
atheletes have come into my office and said, “Look, I’m doing it, but I hate it.”, says Murphy. “
‘My parents have invested $80,000, and they want me to do it for a few more years’”(Feldman
According to reseachers, the best parents are the ones who allow their children to follow
their own paths. If the child does have a special talent, he/she should be encouraged-not forced-to
practice and improve. The parents should also be able to curb the child’s participation when it
starts to consume his life. “It’s very natural for parents to identify with their children and want
them to do well”, says Ronald Smith, a psychologist at the University of Washington. “The
danger occurs when the parent begins to live through the child”(Kantrowitz 1996). Parents
should root for their children to do well strictly for the child. Some parents, who never played
sports or weren’t very good when they were young, want the child to do well, so the parents feel
like they are the ones doing well. Adds Smith, “The danger occurs when the parent begins to live
through the child”(Kantrowitz 1996).
Adoloscenece is commonly when burnout occurs in a pressured child athelete. Suddenly,
he is not just playing for a hollow trophy and a pizza party. There is something greater at stake.
College recruiters flock to high schools, dangling everything from full scholarships to brand new
cars in front of their faces. For financially strapped students, a scholarship is the only way they
can attend college. A dropped pass or bad arc shot goes from being a human mistake to a life
Harmones play a big part in this stage of a child’s life. Teenagers now want to look good
in front of their peers. So not only are they playing for parents, recruiters, and coaches, they are
also playing to protect their egos. No one, at any age, wants to be considered a loser. Especially
when you are seventeen(Roberts, Treasure, Hall).
A perfect example of a parent properly guiding his child trough life is Joe Bryant, whose
son Kobe is a member of the world champion Los Angeles Lakers. In June of 1996, Kobe made a
controversial decision when he chose to bypass college and go straight to the NBA. Joe stood
behind his son one hundred percent. “All we could do was say, ‘You can do whatever you want
as long as you work at it’” said the elder Bryant, who spent eight years in the NBA himself.
When injuries slowed Kobe in 1997, he was able to share his experience with his ex-player
father, who gave him the best kind of comfort: “I give him hugs to let him know it’s OK and it
will get better(Kantrowitz 1996).” Parents take note. This is the way things are supposed to be.
Unfortunately, some youths are are restricted by what sports they can particpate in.
Children who suffer from ADHD have this problem. Those who suffer from this tend to fidget,
be easily distracted, and exhibit other behavior abnormalities more often than their peers. Ths
stimulant Ritalin is prescribed for these children. ADHD may make kids energetic, but it also
makes them highly unfocused as well as uncoachable. So those suffering from ADHD are better
suited in sports that stress individual accomplishment, such as karate, wrestling, track and field,
and tennis. A sport like baseball may move too slow, while soccer and basketball rely too much
on the explicit demands of the coach. Hoepfully, with help of Ritalin, those who suffer from
ADHD can take part in sports, and achieve some balance with their peers(Alexander 1990).
Self-concept also plays a key role in sports. In a study conducted by Rosalie Miller for the
February 1989 addition of Perceptual and Motor Skills, a sample of 120 children (69 boys, 51
girls), ranging from age nine to age fourteen, was administered the Harter Self-perception Profile
before and after a five week program of swimming instruction. The Harter Self-perception
Profile predicts that children who improve most in swimming will also have the largest gains in
athletic self-concept. Sure enough, this was true. Those improved in swimming also gained the
most in self-concept as well as self-steem, according to those who were interviewed.
Children who play sports generally have a wholesome and rewarding experience. I know I
did. I played Little League baseball for nine years. I made a ton of friends, and while I can never
be talented enough to ever play on a Major League level, I still got to play the game that I love. A
strong bond between my father and I also grew out of this. We spent hours in the backyard
playing catch, fielding ground balls, and just talking about the game. I also had the luxury of
having coaches who were competitive as well as kind. They wanted to win, but everybody,
regardless of skill, got to play and just have fun. As documented in this paper, however, not
everyone has an experience like this one. Some parents want their kids to be professionals so
much that they forget the object of it all is to just have fun. Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant were
lucky. Their grew up under the umbrella of kind, loving parents who knew when to push and
when to let up. As a result, both have been huge hits, with Tiger winning everything in sight, and
Kobe leading the Lakers to their first NBA championship since the days of Magic Johnson.
Sports helps children build self-esteem, loyalty, teamwork, and sportsmanship, invaluable
lessons that can forever be implemented in the real world. It also helps gives a child social skills
that he cannot possibly learn by reading a book, or spending hours in the classroom. Parents and
coaches are the only ones who can really mar a childs athletic experience. And as long they root
for their child, not against the others, and do not let a child do what he does not want to do,
everything will be okay. Sports are vital, something no kid should be without. Take it from
someone who knows.
Sports and Games