How to Help Kids Cope With the Stress of Competitive Sports

August 19, 2016

Jeffrey Lieberman
U.S. News & World Report

Athletics can teach children to love physical activity, but kids are often pushed too far.

It's been thrilling to watch Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Alison Felix, Michael Phelps and so many other extraordinary athletes compete at this year's Olympics. But at the same time, it's sobering to hear about how they were deprived – necessarily – of a normal childhood in order to make it to the highest levels. It's even more shocking to realize how young they were at the time their parents had to make the "Sophie's Choice" to commit them to such sporting aspirations. Biles and Ledecky, for example, were 6 years old when they began their respective sports, Phelps started swimming competitively at age 7 and Felix ran her first race at the comparatively advanced age of 12. In doing so, they had to give up the normal social and educational activities of youth for the monastic life of a competitive athlete.

It is not only the world-class athletes who must dedicate their lives to their sport and the goal of winning. It's also those whose parents have decided – long before the youngsters have even reached puberty – that they want their children to have a chance of becoming professional athletes or even national class amateurs, or to win college scholarships. Even when children are not being groomed for a sports career, they're subject to increasingly extreme levels of intensity from parents and coaches in organizations like Little League Baseball, Pop Warner Football, Amateur Athletic Union Basketball, junior tennis or even community soccer leagues.

Today's mentality differs markedly from my experience on the high school football, basketball and baseball teams, and in college, when I played football for the legendary coach Bo Schembechler on a scholarship. Despite the obvious emphasis on sports, my life was still pretty normal – I had plenty of friends outside of sports and went to prom in high school, joined a fraternity in college and became a doctor. As a student in the late 60s, I even participated in protests against the Vietnam War. I'm skeptical that contemporary athletic phenoms – whether they are seeking professional careers or not – can maintain such balance and diversity in their lives. When sports inflict extreme deprivation and pressure, I believe they can be detrimental to healthy development.

I first noticed how drastically different today's competitive sports environment is when my younger son moved up the ranks to become a nationally-ranked junior tennis player. He practiced with his coach daily and traveled to tournaments most weekends. And then, there were the strength-training sessions, dietary instruction by a nutritionist and appointments with a sports psychologist. When I attended his tournaments, I was shocked by the parents and players' deadly serious attitudes and emotionally volatile behaviors. These reactions signaled the parents' high expectations and the tremendous pressure placed on the children. I considered myself an innocent bystander, but in retrospect, I wonder if I was culpable of the same overbearing tendencies to push my kid and vicariously compete through his exploits.

While parents can rationalize that playing a sport is good exercise (it is) and an intense, single-minded focus is necessary for achieving excellence in any field of endeavor (fair enough), I'm not sure how good it is when this process begins in earnest so early in life, and at the cost of a well-rounded childhood. What are the consequences, both physically and psychologically, and how does this affect a child's developmental experience and their outcomes in later life? Whether the goal is a college scholarship, wealth and fame through professional sports or the prestige and satisfaction of winning a championship or Olympic medal, when does the price become too high?

Unfortunately, there's no clear-cut answer to those questions. With approximately 50 million children and adolescents participating in organized sports, we need more studies of their effects on development and outcomes later in life. What we do know is that while children are generally acquiescent and seem happy when involved in sports, there are an increasing number of sports-related injuries (nearly 3 million emergency room visits per year for those ages 5 to 24) and a 70 to 80 percent attrition rate from the sport by the time a child is 15 years old, according to a 2013 report in the Journal of Sports Medicine. Many kids "burn out" and become discouraged from further competition or worse, may turn away from sports activity altogether.

My own life experience is a case in point. I never intended to play professional sports and, thanks to my parents, I didn't need a scholarship to finance my college education. I played sports because I liked to and I believe that I benefited from the hard work and discipline entailed, in addition to the enjoyment that I got out of it. My father loved sports, and gaining his approval also likely factored into my motivation to play competitively. (Parental approval can be crucial in motivating children to pursue athletic competition.) When I aged out of team sports, I took up tennis and still play avidly. My son, on the other hand, played one year of collegiate tennis, then quit to focus on his studies. He's hardly picked up a racket since.

Whether I pushed my son too hard or the hyper-competitive culture of his youth is to blame, young people face a drastically different set of opportunities and challenges than in prior generations. The modern era, with the growth of the entertainment industry, the obsessive fascination with celebrity culture and enormous amounts of money paid to sports figures in this country, has changed the game (no pun intended) with regard to why kids play sports (or are encouraged to play by their parents).

The results can be profound, as we well know from historical examples of children exploited for adult purposes – usually financial. While child labor was outlawed in the U.S. in 1938, we have continued to see adverse outcomes for some children yoked to professions too early in their lives – entertainers like Judy Garland, Tatum O'Neal and Gary Coleman. More recently, we have seen similar sequelae in sports stars, such as Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati, Bjorn Borg, Tiger Woods and Jonny Manzel. On the other hand, there are many examples of children guided by their parents to great success and ostensible happiness such as Venus and Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Jack Nicklaus and Lebron James.

The worlds of recreational and competitive sports have evolved and, in many ways, merged for our youth. Parents, educators and sports administrators should take heed and seek ways to support and reduce the stress on kids even as they strive for their ultimate success. Participation in competitive sports – particularly at elite levels – can have adverse consequences. Parents should be vigilant to signs of behavioral stress such as disturbed sleep and eating habits, irritability, extreme moodiness, social withdrawal, excessive anxiety and worry.

Until we have more research on the benefits and risks of hyper-competitive sports for children, parents (and coaches) should:

  • Practice positive parenting by placing appropriate praise and emphasis on fun more than winning;
  • Encourage goals of skill acquisition rather than just winning;
  • Provide positive reinforcement – in other words, rewarding the good rather than punishing the bad – in practice and competitive events;
  • Encourage behaviors such as sportsmanship, fair play and preparedness, as in proper clothing, equipment, rest and hydration; and
  • Obtain regular physical and psychological exams by their pediatrician.
  • We can also help coaches develop and guide their young charges in ways that minimize adverse effects by:
  • Providing coaches with materials and courses in best practices;
  • Providing safety education and enforce safety rules and use of proper equipment and facilities; and
  • Adapt new guidance from the latest scientific research as it becomes known.

Playing competitive sports from an early age can be immensely gratifying and beneficial if the athletes, parents and coaches maintain an emphasis on fun, and a balance between physical fitness, psychological well-being and lifelong lessons for a healthy and active lifestyle.

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