Whether your child is playing sports now or considering participating in a sport, you likely have an opinion about the value of sports in children’s lives. You may have your own positive or negative experiences with sports as a child.
The social, emotional, and physical benefits of playing sports in childhood and adolescence are many, depending on the right supportive circumstances. Aspen Institute’s Project Play has collected research on the value of youth and school sports and is an excellent resource for parents, schools, and youth sport organizations.
While Project Play and other youth sports organizations advocate for using the latest research in positive development to build healthy outcomes for young people, it is also important to recognize the potential dark side of playing sports. For example, when sports coaches and parents use negative, bullying-like approaches to win games and build resilience in children by being “tough,” research shows this has a detrimental effect on kid’s health and well-being.
Is Playing Sports a Good Fit for Your Child?
The truth is that neither portrait of playing sports during childhood is completely correct. Research studies have been conducted with hundreds of thousands of children who participate in sports. Generally, these studies show that youth who participate in organized sports during middle and high school do better academically and are offered greater job prospects than children who do not partake in sports activities. However, nuances exist in these studies that are important for parents to understand. Like all studies that equate youth activities with success in life, it is imperative to look deeper to learn how these findings apply to your own children.
Whatever opinions you may have formed about playing sports, the most important question: “Is playing sports a good fit for my child?” The answer involves knowing your child, the particular sport, and how the coach contributes to a positive, healthy culture for athletes.
Achieving Positive Outcomes from Youth Sports
Studies offer broad insights into child development and often contradict one another. Since no one child is exactly like another, parents who understand the benefits and pitfalls of playing sports and who pay attention to the individual needs of their children are more likely to raise kids that thrive in life. Generally, studies indicate three important aspects of playing sports that affect positive youth development – intensity, continuity, and balance. A combination of all three offers the greatest benefits to kids.
The amount of time a child spends playing sports each week is particularly important to whether they receive positive developmental outcomes from their participation. Kids who spend more time playing sports have greater benefits than youth who participate at lower levels or not at all. With greater time commitment, children develop better mastery of skills and superior knowledge of tactics and strategy. This is when playing sports can lead to the development of strategic thinking which is helpful in all aspects of life, including the ability to find and excel in the job market. No one can tell you how many hours of playing sports per week is the perfect amount. The important learning is that children who make a commitment to regular practice receive greater developmental benefits.
The stability and duration of how children participate in playing sports across their adolescent years is also important. Studies suggest that intermittent participation during the middle and high school years is not as beneficial as continuous dedication. Making a commitment to playing sports over time facilitates the likelihood that children will overcome challenges and obstacles in their performance. They also have greater opportunities to interact with teammates, learning to cope with the interpersonal challenges of working with others. This is an important aspect of developing initiative, an internal strength that lasts a lifetime.
Perhaps the most important of the three aspects of playing sports is to achieve a balance between sports and other activities. Studies show that greater developmental outcomes are attained by children who spend time in activities other than their dominant sports pursuits. It is not necessarily the number of activities in which youth participate, but rather that they have outlets beyond playing sports. For example, one study found youth who participated in sports and school clubs had lower rates of depression than kids who focused exclusively on playing sports. Other studies, like the one highlighted in Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation, suggest that children who participate in activities that present real-world challenges, like volunteering in their communities, achieve greater developmental benefits. These activities encourage youth to develop a civic identity and see a world beyond a game of competition.
Playing Sports and the Dilemma for Families
The three positive factors mentioned in the previous section can present dilemmas for families. The decision to play sports with the intensity and continuity required to be highly successful (and possibly earn a college scholarship) must be made with long- and short-term consequences in mind.
To pursue playing sports at the expense of other out-of-school-time activities may not be as developmentally positive for youth. Yet often, the decision to focus on one sport exclusively is fueled by a strong commitment to that activity, one that brings joy and satisfaction to a teenager’s life. It may also be fueled by the needs of parents whose lives revolve around coaching or the internal satisfaction of seeing their child achieve on the playing field.
Whatever the reasons, sports can place a high demand on young people’s time and energy, leading to negative outcomes, including depression and anxiety. Rather than accepting many modern-day youth sports environments that have taken the enjoyment out of playing sports from children, parents and coaches can make a difference.
I recommend parents read the book, “Changing the Game: The Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids,” by John O’Sullivan for additional guidance. John is the founder of Changing the Game Project and a champion for positive youth development through playing sports. You can also watch his informative TEDx Talk on youth sports below.
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Zarrett, N., Fay, K., Li, Y., Carrano, J., Phelps, E., & Lerner, R. M. (2009). More than child’s play: Variable- and pattern-centered approaches for examining effects of sports participation on youth development. Developmental Psychology, 45(2), 368-382.
(Parts of this article were originally published July 26, 2011. It was updated with the latest research and resources and republished on April 10, 2023.)
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Published: April 10, 2023Tags: character strengths, critical thinking, initiative, positive youth development, Sports