August 2, 2019

How to keep sports positive for kids

Roughly three out of four families in the U.S. have at least one child who plays an organized sport, which is around 45 million kids. Yet, nearly 80 percent of those kids have stopped playing organized sports by the time they're 15.

Youth sports is a multibillion-dollar industry these days, but participation in sports seems to be declining — by as much as 20 percent in some sports. While there is a lot of debate as to why, any parent who has kids who participate probably has a few opinions of their own.

For one, there remains strong pressure to compete at higher levels. While the focus used to be about getting onto a college team, now it seems the competition is on making travel teams or even high school teams. And, while certainly, every family is different, it can be easy for parents to get caught up in the desire (and pressure) to help their kids play.

Some families spend thousands of dollars for participation and additional training. For those not playing at higher levels, the experiences might not always be positive if they enjoy the sport — poorly maintained facilities, the inability to actually field teams and more can lead some kids, and families, to feel like "why bother?"

UW Health sport psychologist Shilagh Mirgain sees a variety of athletes in her practice — from elite athletes at the top of their game to aspiring teens who hope one day to make a college team. She said that sports can be very beneficial for kids, but there are definitely factors that can make the experience a negative one for kids.

"Kids need a lot of different experiences to get a sense of who they are, and they can gain that through exposure to a variety of activities. I believe almost all kids — and adults — benefit from being involved in sports," she said. "There is strong research showing that exercise can protect against anxiety and depression while organized sports offers tremendous life skills."

Mirgain points out that kids learn the joy of being active, teamwork, healthy competition, problem-solving skills, how to overcome a setback and even manage defeat. But, as is often the case, it also boils down to how parents approach athletics and how they help their kids approach them.

"Participating in sports can impact a child's well-being later in life," she said. "It's important for parents to help kids navigate some of the negatives."

Common challenges when playing sports

Mirgain notes that some of the common challenges that can develop when playing youth sports include:

  • Overuse injuries and burn out: Young children, in particular, should be encouraged to do a wide variety of activities, including free play. While some might think to specialize early has its advantages the reality is that focusing on one sport, particularly from an early age, makes kids vulnerable to injury and burn out.

  • Anxiety: The prevalence of social media has added more pressure to kids. The moment of a dropped pass or a strikeout never goes away and can even become a source of taunting through social media. Kids already put too much pressure on themselves making the stakes even higher. Mirgain said that some of that anxiety can show in physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, difficulty sleeping the night before, loss of appetite, rumination about performance before or after competition and attempts to avoid the sport in the future. 

  • Self-esteem: Adolescents are developing their identity around their classmates and teammates and in the right setting, their confidence will blossom. But in unhealthy settings, kids' self-esteem can diminish. It becomes challenging when kids begin to associate their worth with their performance and outcome of the athletic activity. For those who might not get as much playing time, it can be hard to feel good about themselves.

  • Sense of self: This is especially challenging for kids who have played sports from a young age or play sports at a high level. When so much focus is put onto the participation in that sport, the moment it is taken away — either through injury or because they didn't get a spot on the team — it can lead to depression and feelings of failure.

Mirgain shared the story of one family whose child didn't make a college team, despite years of significant time and monetary investment in the sport.

"He was devastated," she said of the young athlete. "All of the lessons, camps, clubs — it all seemed like it had been for nothing. After he processed his grief, he realized there was a new opportunity waiting for him. He could still be an athlete and play the sport, and without the demands of a college-level team, he could finally give his time and attention to other areas of his life."

Mirgain acknowledged that it can be difficult for parents to help their children balance sports with other activities, including school. For some parents, there is the danger of living through the child's accomplishments. This can create pressure to invest more money and time to help the child be successful and at the same time, make it hard to let go and be comfortable with not "giving it their all."

A healthier approach to childhood athletics

Mirgain encourages parents to resist the urge to "coach" their kids by pointing out mistakes or things they could have done better. Too much of that and kids can become disinterested in the game. Instead, she says to ask, "Did you have fun?" , "What do you feel good about?" and "What did you learn?" These types of questions keep the focus on learning and growing through the sport.

Other ways to help include:

  • Cultivate "Bodifulness": In sports, there are times athletes and spectators get swept up in a mentality that praises "playing through the pain." But it's important to teach kids to listen to their body. Celebrate the athleticism, but at the same time appreciate that the body needs to be cared for. If something hurts, kids need to tell the coach or parent and stop or rest.

  • Connect back with the original intention: Youth sports is a fun activity that provides kids an opportunity to grow and learn to love being physically active. Help kids remember that. Focus on teamwork and healthy competition. Learn how to win and lose gracefully and, most of all, find a focus off the field.

"It's important to remember that only a very small number of athletes go on to play at high levels such as college, and even fewer will ever go pro," Mirgain said. "Parents can help kids keep perspective by being their biggest cheerleaders and encouraging them — win or lose — to enjoy being active and that will help them stay active for life."