Children and Sport

Sport involvement by children is an outgrowth of their natural tendency to play. Typically, younger children can spend hours in spontaneous forms of play with little import given to outcome. More formal, but loosely structured games such as Duck-Duck Goose, Leap-frog, and Pom-Pom Pull-away  also occupy their time. These activities encourage inclusion, and little, if any, recognition or status is given by other children or adults to a participant because of his or her prowess. As children grow older these games become of less intrinsic interest, and sport activities tend to take their place.

At first this may entail the informal batting, kicking, running, throwing, and catching of balls with parents or friends that occurs in the backyards, playgrounds, and the side streets of America. But in time, children commonly become engaged in more formalized sports in which teams are organized, have coaches, conduct regular practices, and possess a prearranged competitive schedule.  Here, competition among teams and individuals becomes more important, as does one's place in the athletic hierarchy. For some, early success may start a child on the path of elite sport whose goal is national and international competition, and often a professional career. For others, early failure and/or exclusion results in a child dropping out.

While America seems totally enamoured with sports for children, we have learned over the years that sports programs for youth can have both positive and negative effects. In itself, sport is not universally good or bad, but how programs are operationalized can have a significant impact on children's psychological well-being, physical condition, and general interest in remaining engaged in physical activity. Critical to deriving positive outcomes in children's sport is the expertise and sensitivity of coaches, the pressures placed on children by parents, and the types of reinforcement and punishment given by peers to participants for their successes and failures.

Adult Control of Children's Sport

How the transition from more play-like to more competitive physical activities occurs has changed over the years.  Until the1950s children typically organized and ran their own activities in sandlots, parks and school yards, or participated under the aegis of social agencies such as YMCAs, or Boys and Girl’s Clubs. Adult involvement was minimal, and a game continued as long as interest existed or a player did not have to go home for dinner. As the seasons changed so did the sports in which children engaged. Baseball or softball was played during the spring and summer, football during the fall, and basketball and hockey in the winter. Since organization was minimal, teams were normally selected for a particular contest informally by “captains” who were acknowledged to be the best players in the group at the time. Uniforms were whatever kids wore to the playing site, rules took into account the unique aspects of the playing venue, and were enforced by general agreement. Disputes were adjudicated by debates and arguments. When neither team would yield, decisions were made by flipping a coin or “choosing odds and evens.” Equipment was supplied by players, and when necessary, jury-rigged to serve a particular function such as jackets being used for bases, trash cans for hockey goals,  and  cracks in the pavement as the foul line in basketball. As pointed out by Tye and Romano (1997) this type of organization was conducive to kids developing leadership skills, as well as making it possible for them to experiment with playing different sports, trying different positions, and experimenting with different techniques.

However, since the mid 1950s youth sports began to be increasingly controlled by adults. With the advent of Little League in 1954 (Hale, 1956) formal sports programs have attracted an ever increasing number of children. Today we have thousands of youngsters engaged in Pop Warner football, YBL basketball (i.e., YMCA), soccer leagues, hockey programs, age group swimming, and gymnastics’ schools. In a recent series of articles Tye  (Tye, 1997) portrays a picture in which adults have virtually taken over all aspects of kids’ sports. Consequently, we are seeing children starting in formal programs earlier, practicing more intensely, participating in fewer sports, and adhering more closely to what might be construed as a professional model in which winning and achievement becomes more important than the quality of experience. Tye gives the example of 12 year old Joseph Lorenzetti who started playing hockey at 3 1/2 and “… now trains 300 days a year, attends seven hockey camps, and travels 4,500 miles a year to compete, while his parents spend $6000 a year on equipment, ice time, and hotels” (p. A1). While Joseph is not the typical child sport participant, it is evident that there are many more kids like him than a quarter of a century ago (Bigelow et al., 2001), and those that are not as “professionalized” still participate on formal teams, with competitive schedules, regular practices, and adult coaches.

Interestingly, according to Halpern (Halpern, 2003) the change from child centered to adult centered children's sport is a consequence of parental fears. He asserts that even during the 1960s and 1970s informal sports could be found in the school yards and playgrounds of America. However, sometime during this period parents began to feel apprehensive about their kids safety in these places, and opted for having their children join programs in which adults were in supervisory roles. As well, with the advent of Title IX in 1972, girls started to become increasingly involved with competitive sports programs in larger numbers and typically followed the physical education model held by females in which teachers organized and oversaw activities.

While the motivation for a paradigm shift from a more child to a more adult centered youth sport model is understandable, it has transformed the nature of children’s activities from less formalized, play-like endeavors to ones which often rival the highly competitive athletic programs found in high schools, colleges and professional leagues. The impact of this change is difficult to decipher, but some observers have identified a number of issues which need to be addressed. For example. Devereux (1978) argues that children's games serve the important functions of providing a means for children to experiment with a variety of roles, learn important principles of effective behavior, and gain experience expressing a variety of emotions in a socially appropriate manner. He sees this happening best when children are self-motivated and engage in less-formal sports programs. Devereux argues that in more typical adult controlled setting that have become typical in youth sports:

…the pupils are patients and the teacher is the active agent. The principles which are to be learned are explained, perhaps even demonstrated, by the teacher, rather than being discovered by the children themselves. Learning is defined as work, which implies that children, left to follow their own motivations and interests freely, would rather be doing something else. The pacing of activities is rigidly controlled by the teacher, the school schedules, or the tyranny of the lesson plan. And the evaluative feedback, coming from the teacher rather than from the materials themselves, is often delayed, irrelevant, and peculiarly invidious (p. 118).

In contrast he views the self-organized and self-paced games of children as ideal for providing opportunities for not only developing important social behaviors, but for developing an internalized sense of morality (Piaget, 1932) which is necessary for developing and enforcing rules that are necessary for maintaining order, a sense of fairness, and player acceptance. In addition Devereux points out that when peer social interactions determine how games are played, rather than when adults direct children by virtue of their authoritarian power, children "learn to conceive of social relationships as being patterned on relevant, universalistic principles in which people must get along in common subjection to general rules" (p. 120). Seemingly, this train of thought emphasizes the importance of children being actively engaged in organizing and regulating their own games if they are to truly develop an understanding of social interactions and their roles as leaders and followers.  This is not to say that adult directed programs are without merit, as they probably do a better job of teaching children technical skills, and how to move through the athletic pyramid, than more self-directed programs . But to paraphrase Devereux, we must not only be concerned with what the player is doing to the ball, but what the ball is doing to the player!

On the other hand Martens (1978) takes a more moderate position in suggesting that both unorganized and organized sports programs have a place in the world of children. He is unconvinced that a return to the "good old days" would necessarily lead youth to spend more time in active leisure pursuits. As well, he argues that a critical factor in organized sports programs is the quality of leadership exhibited by adults. Winning need not be the only or most important goal. Instead, strong, competent coaches can help each child master the activity, have fun, and feel like an important part of the group.

As with most other issues pertaining to sport there are no simple answers here. As observers it is clear that whether or not children's programs are self-organized or adult regulated the major outcomes that we seek should entail such things as participant enjoyment, skill development, physical fitness improvement, and positive social interactions. These are the foundations for developing the motivation for children to stay involved in physical activity throughout their lives. To the extent that a child feels marginalized by peers and organizers, regardless of whether they are children or adults, he or she will probably seek out other activities. While stories of adult coaches devaluing a child's  contribution to the success of a team are legend, we also are familiar with children being selected last by "captains" in spontaneously organized and directed youth games. Seemingly, the message that a child receives in both situations is the same. While Devereux's points are well taken, we are now living in a different age in which adult organized sports for children have become a major theme in childhood culture.  Nonetheless, as coaching education programs evolve we can do a better job in training adults to recognize and reinforce the sorts of things for which Devereux argues. For instance, there is no reason why coaches can not help children to understand the nature of rules, ethical behavior, and sportsmanship. As well, coaches can reinforce all sorts of behaviors that are not necessarily directed toward contest outcomes. Rewarding effort, being on time for practices, supporting teammates, and respecting officials are only a few of the things upon which coaches might focus.

Of great importance, especially early in a child's sporting experience, is making it fun. Here, coaches can fulfill an important role in understanding that children thrive on play, and that focusing only on winning typically diminishes the enjoyment experienced. Indeed, for both boys and girls the most important reasons given by them for participating in sports are developing skills, having fun, becoming physically fit, and being challenged (Gill, Gross, and Huddleston, 1983). Clearly, such a profile of objectives would require coaches to think expansively, going beyond the simple objective of winning championships.

Evidence also exists that youth coaches also can benefit from training programs which focus on learning, practicing, and monitoring behaviors which do and do not promote such objectives. In a unique research program Smith and Smoll over a 20 year period (Smith and Smoll, 1997) has been particularly noteworthy as it attempted to examine positive and negative factors in youth sports that contribute to children’s’ continued participation and enhanced  self-perceptions, or decreased interest and dropping-out. A major concern in these studies has been the impact of a coach’s behavior on their athletes. Specifically, Smith, Smoll and colleagues developed a coaching assessment tool known as the Coaching Behavior Assessment System (I. e., CBAS) which articulated coaching behaviors into 12 smaller descriptive components (Smith, Smoll and Hunt, 1977). Eight of the 12 categories are considered reactions by the coach to something a player has done (e. g., reinforcement, punishment, technical instruction), while four items were classified as spontaneous, and include such things as giving general encouragement, or general instructions.

Not surprisingly, studies have revealed that coaches who are more reinforcing, and focus on developing technical skills in their players tend to be viewed more positively by their athletes who are also more  motivated to remain associated with the activity (Smoll, Smith, Barnett, and Everett, 1993). As well, it has been found that children with lower self-esteem are most affected by interacting with coaches who are supportive and who focus on technical instruction. In generalizing across such studies Figler and Whitaker (1991, p.115) make the important observation that merely identifying general educational and social objectives in youth sports is insufficient to bring them about. Coaches must be trained to operationalize behaviors that lead to specific outcomes, and this normally requires understanding how their behaviors affect the kids with which they interact.

On a final note, the issue of the appropriateness of a competitive vs a social emphasis in children's sports programs must also take into account the level of the physical and psychological maturity of a participant. Although we seem to be in an age in which it is politically correct to devalue competitive achievement in sports programs for children (e. g., Tutko & Bruns, 1976) there are those who advocate the importance of such competitive experiences in preparing children for a competitive world (e.g., Ford, 1974; Michener, 1976). Seemingly, both sides of the debate are correct if they can precisely target the population to which they refer. The term children is rather broad when used in this discussion, and can apply to persons 5 years of age, as well as those who are 15 or 16. Surely, their would be few adults who advocate a professional model of sport in which attention, playing time, and awards are based on competitive achievement in programs for children in the early elementary grades. During this period kids are experimenting with activities and social relationships, and generally have little experience in competitive situations. This is an important period during which they are in search of developing an  identity (Erickson, 1963). For adults to limit this exploratory period by relegating children to higher and lower positions of status and allocating rewards by virtue of their early attempts at a novel sport would seem counterproductive in promoting those things that a child seeks at this early time: fun, social engagement, and developing feelings of self-worth. As advocated by many, this early period should be characterized by maximizing playing time for all participants, instructing on proper technique and strategy, and reinforcing participant behavior which reflect ethical and moral values which we ultimately desire in older participants.

On the other hand there is surely a time when competitive achievement is important to a youngster. Our culture promotes hard work, developing skill, and being successful. For observers to act as if a model that is appropriate for younger children is also appropriate for adolescents makes little sense when one examines the importance of athletic prowess in adolescent culture (e.g., see Coleman, 1961; Eitzen, 1976). In this age range to say that winning is unimportant, that everyone's contribution is equivalent, and that all participants should be given  equal playing time regardless of their ability does not mesh with the reality of how sports are structured in America.

Given that programs should emphasize different things for individuals in different age ranges presents several significant  dilemmas. First is the problem of transitioning from an instructional-education framework where winning is de-emphasized to one in which personal and team achievement is important, and winning takes on much greater importance. While no exact age or grade level can precisely locate this period, it probably occurs somewhere in the 12-14 age range, and during the 8th and 9th grades. For many children, parents, and coaches, this is a particularly difficult time since most sports programs for younger children instill the educational, human developmental, and participatory  philosophy of sport, and then all of a sudden emphasis shifts toward a more competitive model. In the writer's view, the transitional period is further exacerbated by coaches continuing to advocate the philosophy  of youth programs, but behaving more in accordance with the professionalized competitive model. Typically, more skillful players have little problem with the disparity between program philosophy and a coaches behavior since he or she gets more playing time that in previous years, and greater attention from the coach and spectators. However, this is often at the expense of players who become more marginalized and are confused by the disparity between their previous sports status and the lack of reinforcement they begin to experience. For the first time a "pecking order" has been established, and it is dependent on the perceived contribution that the individual makes to the team success, calibrated in terms of winning and losing. Parents of these kids also have difficulty with this transition, and often make the situation even more difficult for their child by verbalizing their disaffection for the coach, the program, and the more favored players.

In the final analysis, it is difficult to place anyone at blame for this change in emphasis that occurs. We live in a competitive society, and sport simply reflects other major institutions in which individuals are tested against one another. As aptly stated by psychiatrist Stephen Ward (1978, p. 77)

Why delude a child into the belief that success can be achieved by merely presenting himself as an aspiring candidate for the rewards of life? Will his first employer have as gentle a regard as did his Little League manager for the possible psychic trauma that might be done by firing him?

Perhaps, the angst that exists for so many at this age could be greatly reduced if coaches and program administrators would be clearer and more forthright regarding the essence of their programs? Instead of suggesting that the beginning high school program is simply more of the same, it should be conveyed that a shift in emphasis has occurred and that is the reason that individual achievement is more highly valued.

A second issue directly related to this change in program philosophy concerns how sports and physical activity can be promoted to adolescents while at the same time structurally and philosophically removing most participatory opportunities. Indeed, today we have a plethora of evidence which suggest that involvement in a variety of physical activity settings can meaningfully impact quality of life, yet a recent report by the Surgeon general found that approximately half of persons in the age range of 12-21 are not vigorously active, and that there is a sharp decline during the adolescent years (U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996). Seemingly, this should be no surprise since all but the most accomplished athletes in this age group are provided the opportunities, resources, and encouragement within schools to continue. The issue here then becomes one of providing opportunities for both adolescents who wish to engage in traditional competitive athletic programs, and for those who wish simply to engage in programs which encourage participation by persons of all shapes, sizes, and skill levels. If it is true that involvement in physical activity programs promotes physical, psychological, and social well-being, then community resources should not be delimited to programs that provide opportunities to a few outstanding athletes. Either resources should be increased to support all that wish to engage, or those that are allocated should be expended to provide opportunities for individuals having different capabilities and interests.

This may seem like a significant break with tradition, but it is difficult to justify why athletic programs in schools should be designated only for the elite performers. Is it not the case that in virtually all subjects offered in modern day high schools multiple levels of a course are offered. Typically there are honors classes for the best students, mid-level courses for the average students, and lower-level courses for students having greater difficulties acquiring knowledge in an area. On the other hand, we are less willing to do the same when it comes to physical activity programs, and then seem surprised when data informs us that the large number of potential participants are inactive, and have "dropped-out." Seemingly, we would have many more high school drop-out if schools only offered honors programs across the curriculum!

Current Participation Rates

A recent review of youth sports in America has identified five different types of sports programs currently offered (Seefeldt and Ewing, 1997). These differ in terms of skill level, time commitment required of participants, financial costs to athletes, competitive emphasis, and coaching expertise available. Furthermore, one might categorize these as

“…agency-sponsored programs, club sports, recreational, intramurals and interscholastics. Of these five categories, three are community-based and two are conducted within the schools” (PFSRD, 1997, p. 2).

Data for participation rates in each category taken from the Center for Education Statistics and compiled in the PFSRD (1997, p. 2) report  is shown in Table 1. As seen, the largest percentage of children are engaged in non-school programs (agency sponsored programs and recreational programs). This is noteworthy because sport has been closely affiliated with physical education in the schools, yet most children participate in programs which are not formally overseen by the educational establishment. Consequently, program philosophies and practices regarding such things as the importance of winning, attention to skill development, allocation of playing time, teaching of so called "life skills", training of coaches, and extent to which opportunities are provided for children with special needs may vary considerably. It is also conveyed that non-school programs are the fastest growing categories in youth sports[1]. Considering, the financial pressures facing public school systems, with the reduction or elimination of physical education and sports programs, one might anticipate that this trend will continue.


Category of Activity

Percent of all Eligible Enrollees(a)

Approximate N of Participants

Agency-Sponsored Sports
(i.e., Little League Baseball, Pop Warner Football)



Club Sports
(i.e., pay for services, as in gymnastics, ice skating, swimming)



Recreational Sports
(everyone plays-sponsored by recreational departments)



Intramural Sports
(middle, junior, senior high schools)



Interscholastic Sports
(middle, junior, senior high schools)





* Total population of eligible participants in the 5-17 year age category in (1995) was estimated to be 48,374,000 by the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 1989.

(a)    Total does not equal 100 percent because of multiple-category by some athletes.

(b)   Percent of total population aged 5-17 years.

(c)    Percent of total high school-aged population (N=14,510,000).

When are children ready for Sport?

Perhaps the most important concept related to when a child should become involved in organized sports relates to the notion of readiness. This idea, first originated by Thorndike (Thorndike and Gates, 1929), suggested that satisfaction and frustration are functions of what an organism is prepared to do.  Extrapolating from this notion, developmental psychologists have proposed that human capacities evolve from birth to maturity, and that an important objective for educators is to mesh exposure to various tasks with current capabilities. Thus, attempting to teach a one year old to read is futile, and frustrating to both teacher and infant because the child at this developmental stage does not yet have the mental or physical capabilities to do so. Within the sport context, one can similarly argue that unless children are prepared physically, cognitively, and emotionally for the demands of competition, they will experience frustration, benefit little, and possibly suffer a great deal.

According to Malina (1990), decisions about when to start competitive sport have typically focused on the physical maturation and skill level of children, with little attention given to cognitive and emotional factors. Seemingly, the former variables are more easily observed since organizers of an activity can generally judge whether or not a child has the strength and skill to shoot a basketball at a hoop, kick a soccer ball through a goal, or swim the length of a pool. Less obvious is the child’s level of understanding of what the event means in the social context in which it occurs. This is more an issue of psychological readiness, and typically is related to when a child has an interest in comparing her skills with others (Brustad, 1993a). By so doing, the child is engaged in the wider endeavor of deriving an identity through a process of social comparisons across a range of activities. Consequently, for sport to be meaningful to a child, the child must have the capacity to understand the variables involved in making comparisons. As in the physical dimension chronological variation exists, but most experts do not believe that such self-conceptual maturity is prevalent before 5 or 6 years of age (Veroff, 1969). Seemingly, the desire to compare physical capabilities and skills increases with age, and probably peaks in the high school and college years (e.g., Coleman,1961; Eitzen, 1975).

A second marker for identifying readiness to become involved in formal sports participation concerns the cognitive and emotional capacity to understand participation as a social process. Whether participating in an individual or team sport, children must interact with one another. They must understand the purpose of roles to which they are assigned, and while competing, also cooperate with teammates, opponents, coaches, and officials if competition is to be orderly. As well, they must also be capable of understanding winning and losing, and the appropriate behavior to exhibit irrespective of outcome. This level of maturity is typically associated with developing an empathic perspective, and has been found to occur sometime between 8 and 10 years of age (Selman, 1976).

From a psychological perspective, too early immersion in sport can result in children becoming frustrated, discouraged, and possibly suffering from lowered esteem because they are unable to understand how what they do or are unable to do relates to success and failure. Research has focused on children’s developing attributional capabilities, with the finding that until about 10, they are not accurate in distinguishing among ability, effort and task difficulty as causal factors in determining sport outcomes (Brustad, 1993a). Consequently, success or failure may be easily misattributed to lack of effort when in fact it may be a consequence of task difficulty or deficiency in skill. Consequently, when the child fails he might try harder, but experience the same failure because the task is extraordinarily difficult, or she lacks the necessary skills to be successful. Inevitably frustration leads to discouragement, lowered self-esteem, and ultimately withdrawal.  

While there is no absolute chronological age at which it is clear that children have the maturity necessary to benefit from participation in formal sports’ programs, it appears that some time during the ages of 7 and 10 would be a minimal starting period (Coakley, 1986). Perhaps, the clearest guidelines relate to emphases that should be placed on sport programs for children at different stages of psycho-social development. As a general principle, programs for children between the ages of 7 and 10 should build on children’s interest in play and developing new skills rather than on outcomes of contests. For older children who are arriving at a level of psychological maturity, increasing emphases can be placed on learning tactics and strategies for competition. As children reach adolescents, and have a better understanding of themselves, and their place in the social process of sport, outcomes will normally take on greater importance.

For prodigies, and children on the “fast-track” to athletic stardom, this sequence is often short-circuited. As will be pointed out in the next section, to reach world-class many years of intense practice is required. Consequently, in several sports, children younger than 7 are required to engage in the types of training programs and competitions more typically associated with professional athletes. This often means moving to another city to work with an experienced coach, assenting to many hours of repetitious training, participating in supplementary strength conditioning, adhering to rigid diets, and competing at a variety of venues against others following similar training schedules. While experts may not recommend this as the preferred model for sport socialization or child development, it is not entirely clear to what extent it is a prescription for positive accelerated development or disaster. It is true that we have seen instances of how starting too early with too much emphasis on winning has resulted in self destructive behavior and personal disasters. But,  we also find that we do have Nancy Kerrigan’s for every Tonya Harding, and Serena Williams’ for every Jennifer Capriati. Consequently, more information needs to be collated about why some children can thrive on a process that appears to violate basic principles of child development, while others succumb as predicted.

Types of Participation

The period of growth in children’s sports programs has been paralleled by increasing numbers of youngsters who attend early childhood education programs. This may be partly a function of educators beliefs about the importance of the preschool years in a child’s cognitive and social development, and partly a result of the transition to two wage earner families having a greater need for childcare. Consequently, a model of having children enter school programs earlier has evolved, and with it kids are also being introduced to formal sports programs at an earlier age. Some swimming and gymnastics programs accept 3 year olds (Martens, 1986). Soccer organizations have been known to sign-up kids at 4, while baseball and wrestling programs accept 5 year olds.  Typically, summer sports camps wait until children are 5 before accepting them for a week or two of intensive skill training. A recent Boston Globe survey of former Globe All-Scholastic athletes and their parents (Tye and Romano, 1997) interestingly found that the average age for joining an organized team for parents was 12, while for their children it was 6 1/2.

Not only are kids today starting younger, they also have more options when it comes to the type of program in which they wish to engage. Young children can opt for recreation department programs which normally entail practicing with a team once during the week, and playing a game on the weekend. If they are interested enough and have the talent, they may decide to try out for the “traveling team” which typically has 2 or three practices a week, and 1 or 2 games, with the possibility for post season play, and sometimes even regional, national and foreign travel. Ninety percent of the Globe all-scholastics typically were on a “traveling team” by age 9, and 45 percent had traveled to places like France, Sweden, and Australia with their teams. Ninety-two percent also went to a summer sports camp.

As might be expected, parents of all-scholastics had a different sport experience than their children. Only 11 percent had attended a sports camp, and 84 percent had never participated on a traveling team. Yet their commitment to their kids athletic endeavors is significant. On average they paid $2,100 a year, with some spending as much as $12,000 a year for travel, coaching, and general expenses associated with  participation in special programs.

Kids with exceptional talent with parents who have the means and are willing to let athletics become the dominant focus of their child’s life can enroll in specialized "elite” training programs such as that run for tennis phenoms in Florida by Nick Bolleteri, the Houston based gymnastics training school of Bella Koroli, or the Burke Mountain Skiing Academy in Vermont.  In such programs, kids devote extraordinary amounts of time to sport, with school and social activities being built around an “elite” training schedule. 

When should children start to compete?

While just about any type of sports program can be found for children of just about any age, a critical question concerns the proper time for them to begin competitive involvement? The answer to such a question is by no means clear-cut and requires considering a number of important issues. The essential dilemma faced by adults overseeing the development of a child’s athletic prowess, if world class performance levels are to be attained, relates to the need to start them young and have them practice many hours a day for many years. On the other hand, young  children often do not understand the nature of what they may be committing themselves to, and can easily be influenced by adults who may or may not have a child’s best interests as their primary concern.

Parents typically make decisions about most aspects of their young children’s lives. They decide whether or not to enroll their child in preschool, who they play with outside of school, when they wake-up, what they eat, how much television they may watch, and the time they must go to bed.  Should they decide to place their child in a swimming, gymnastics or tennis program the youngster will typically agree to participate. But the child is rarely in a position to know what he or she is getting into, and can easily fall prey to being manipulated by adults having a variety of objectives that may not all dovetail with his interests and developmental state.  

Yet, a dilemma exists for parents, children, and coaches who desire to be the best and have come to understand what Ericsson and Charness  (1994) concluded in a comprehensive review of the literature on elite performers. Specifically, it take a minimum of 10 years of intensive practice to reach world class levels of performance, during which time a performer’s psychological, physiological,  and physical attributes are “shaped” to the activity in which she is engaged.  Hence, while peers may be engaged in play and recreation, the child who strives for excellence must start early, and maintain a strict schedule which provides for practice under the guidance of knowledgeable coaches. More than innate talent, according to Ericsson et al., it is the sheer magnitude of this “deliberate practice” which accounts for differential performance among individuals competing at different levels. Consequently, the gymnast who competes in the Olympics at 14, inevitably started “training” at 3 or 4, and teenage tennis “prodigies” who play at Wimbledon at 16, must begin her sport no later than 5 or 6.  Indeed, a recent interview with Andre Agassi and his father claimed that Andre was given a paddle as an infant so that he could hit balls suspended from a mobile in his crib! Tiger Woods, coached by his father Earl, followed a similar protocol.

The question of how such a commitment of time, energy, and resources is determined is an interesting issue, since it is unlikely that many parents or coaches have master-plans for their 3 year olds to follow for the subsequent 10 years. Yet, it is not clear who makes the decision to continue with a program once it evolves from what is typically play into a more formalized training regimen. Conceivably, once more formalized training begins and is pursued for several years it becomes self-perpetuating. The child becomes the athlete, and the parent the “facilitator/coach.” Each has a role to play, and a series of responsibilities to fulfill. While some may be critical of  such a model because it may limit a child’s intellectual, psychological and social development, it can also lead to experiences and opportunities which are quite beneficial. Seemingly, the key ingredient for whether or not this process is healthy relates to the child’s motivation to continue. If he or she is the driving force, rather than parents or coaches, the schedule and intensity of training will be positive and sustainable. On the other hand, one need not search far to find stories of “prodigies” who wanted to do something else, became self-destructive, and dropped-out. Nonetheless, differentiating between motivations of the child, athlete, and coach are not always simple.

A final consideration when considering sport specialization at an early age is overuse injuries. According to a recent review of children and sports performed by the International Federation of Sports Medicine and the World Health Organization the “… potential for overuse injuries resulting from repetitive microtrauma…” (p. 2)  (Michelli et al., 1998) is a unique risk to organized youth sports when untrained adults require too severe a training regimen, over too long a period (Coady and Micheli, 1997). Especially susceptible to injury during repetitive training protocols, but difficult to diagnose, are the growth plates which account for about 10% of bone related sport injuries in children (Lipp, 1998), and if not properly diagnosed and treated  can have long term effects  on bone development. Also  noted as a risk factor to young athletes  is osteoporosis which may develop as a result of excessive training and/or dietary manipulations designed to decrease body mass. This problem is particularly pronounced in young female athletes in sports such as gymnastics and diving and a syndrome which includes disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis has been labeled The female athlete triad (Golden, 2002).

Gender Differences in Sport Participation

Of particular interest is the changing participation rates by girls in interscholastic sports since Title IX was invoked. Table 2 from the PFSRD Report (Seefeldt and Ewing, 1997) shows  that by the 1994-95 academic year girls represented approximately 63 percent of boys engaged in high school sports programs, in contrast to representing 1 percent during 1971 –72. This is a 662 percent increase in participation over the 22 year period, and the trend appears to be continuing in an upward direction. Seemingly, increased opportunities in agency and recreation department sponsored programs at lower levels have provided a bridge to the more competitive interscholastic programs for girls. At the same time participation by boys has remained fairly constant. Interestingly, as pointed out by Ewing & Seefeldt, the ratio of girls to boys in agency sponsored programs is 3:5, with boys starting in organized sports at around 8, while girls begin at approximately 10. It remains unclear whether opportunities, interest, or both are responsible for these gender differences in participation rates.


Table 2. Athletics Participation Survey, 1994-1995*


Boy Participants


Girl Participants


Percent of
Boys Total






































































































































Source: National Federation of State High School Associations, Kansas City, MO, 1995.

(a)Total does not include 11,698 participants in coeducational sport.

(b)Total does not include 17,609 participants in coeducational sports


While these trends appear headed in the right direction Halpern (Halpern, 2003) accurately points out that gender-associated constraints still exist for girls and include a variety of things such as a small number of sport role models, social pressures to do other things, body image issues, a lack of parental encouragement, and fewer sport choices. He also points out that “… from elementary school girls assess their general athletic ability more negatively than boys, regardless of actual performance. Girls sometimes feel less safe in public recreation spaces and use those spaces more for social than for physical purposes, including watching boys play sport” (p. 8).  Also pointed out by Halpern is the particular challenges faced by minority girls. For instance, in the Latino and African-American communities not only are girls discouraged from engaging in recreational physical activities, but they are also expected to help out with child care responsibilities. As well, for low and moderate income families in which both parents work, concerns for safety take priority and children are expected to stay in well defined indoor spaces after school, which often preclude participating in sports programs that require travel, and/or may be located in areas in which parents would rather not send their children. Halpern also makes the point that for lower income families, children may also be under stresses associated with divorce, single parenthood and domestic violence which can provide strong psychological disincentives, such as worry, anxiety, and depression, to engage in sport’s programs.

With increasing attention to overweight and obesity in the  U.S. population, lack of involvement in physical activity of all youth, and female minority populations in particular, has become a public health concern. Indeed, data from the Center for Disease Control (2000), shows that black, non-Hispanic girls between 6 –11 had an overweight percentage (at or above the 95th percentile for sex and age) of 22. 2% in 1999-2000 , about twice as great for all girls in this age range, while black non-Hispanic girls in the 12 – 19 year age range had a prevalence of 26.6%, about 10% higher than all girls in this age range. As well Kim et al. (Kimm et al., 2002) has recently reported a precipitous decline in physical activity levels for girls over the age range of 9 – 17, with black girls declining at twice the rate of white girls, approaching a 100% reduction by 17-18! Another recent study (Flegal et al., 2002) on overweight and obesity in adult populations also reported that obesity and overweight were highest among non-Hispanic black women, with more than half of non-Hispanic black women aged 40 years or older obese, and more than 80% overweight. The data for adolescents are of notable concern because overweight adolescents are seemingly at increased risk to become overweight adults These trends in weight and activity are onerous, since overweight and obesity have been associated with such morbidities as heart disease, Type II diabetes, certain types of cancer, and arthritis. In addition, our society is not particularly friendly to the overweight, leading to psychological dysfunction including depression, anxiety, and diminished self- esteem. Not surprisingly, virtually every organization addressing the issue of increasing weight trends in America has recommended greater efforts to educate the population on nutrition and the importance of promoting greater involvement in various forms of  physical activity.

While such recommendations are logical and should be vigorously promoted, a recent review of literature by Welk and Blair (Welk and Blair, 2000) concluded that the health risks associated with obesity can be controlled if an individual is physically active and physically fit. The authors state that:


“The protection appears to come, at least in part, from positive metabolic changes that occur as  a result of regular participation in physical activity. Because most of these changes have been found to occur independent of changes in body composition it may prove more successful to promote physical activity for its own sake – without emphasizing or expecting corresponding changes in body composition” (p.5).

Notwithstanding the intricate inter-play of variables mediating weight, activity and nutritional patterns, it is logical to conclude that promoting physical activity in minority communities, especially for girls, should be a primary objective of sport and health professionals. In a recent unpublished paper  (El Yyadi et al., 2003) have provided a number of suggestions for interventions that might be explored to reverse, what appears to be, and increasing sedentary lifestyle for underserved girls. These include the following:

1.       increasing girls participation in organized sport prior to high school in community leagues and non league skill programs at community-based centers such as YMCA’, Boys and Girls Clubs, etc. The notion is that girls will be less likely to drop out of sports in adolescents if they are better prepared with regard to skill and conditioning when they enter this period when competitive programs are more prevalent.

2.       increasing sports opportunities at the high school level for new and unskilled athletes to begin participating in school sports. Here the idea is that if opportunities become available to learn new skills and sports, rather than to simply be thrown into sports programs that are competitive, more girls will see this approach as less threatening and be willing to engage in programs.

3.       increasing understanding and resources available for dealing with barriers alleged to inhibit sports participation by girls related to social and institutional factors, including cultural norms, infrastructure issues (transportation, facilities), geography and peer pressure.  This suggestion is an attempt to redefine physical activity programs to more seamlessly fit into girls lives. The objective here would be to identify ways to get girls moving, and this may mean dispensing with some of the more traditional sports programs that do not appeal to many individuals coming from diverse cultures, with unique pressures and environmental restraints.


While it is clearly the case that adults play a significant role in organizing and coaching children today, the role of parents in the sport equation is somewhat unclear. Parents most often are the adults who serve as the adults in charge. They also participate in a child’s sport experience as drivers, financiers, spectators, and agents of feedback. At times, they become advocates for their child with coaches, when they perceive that he or she is not getting sufficient playing time, or when the child is not being given a particular role to play. Interestingly, at a recent meeting of volunteer, high school and college coaches[2], the Number 1 issue identified was coach-parent interactions and relationships. Indeed, sport psychologist Alan Goldberg says that his most popular lecture is “Parents from Hell” and that the toughest job today in sports “is training parents to be appropriate” (Tye, 1997a, A33[DS1] ) supporters of their child’s sports participation.

While there is only limited empirical research on how parents impact their children’s sport involvement (Brustad, 1993b), a number of basic tenets have evolved concerned with how  parents should and should not  behave. Seemingly, the ideal parent is supportive, but not overly directive or aggressive in the manner in which support is expressed. This means that the child should provide the lead, and the parent follow where he or she wishes to go. Parents are also in a position to lend emotional support and, when asked,  provide performance based feedback. Through a variety of overt and subtle communications it is likely that parents can affect a child’s self-perceptions (e.g., Felson and Reed, 1986)), feeling of competence and, presumably, their interest in, liking of, and future motivation for participation. As well, parents who demand more of their child than he or she is able to deliver may be agents of negative affect, and  become instrumental in producing a lowered  sense of sport related self-efficacy, and general self-esteem, factors often associated with early withdrawal from sport. Empirically, such self-perceptions are associated with elevated competitive anxiety in children who fear negative evaluation or  perceive excessive pressures to compete and succeed from their parents (Passer, 1983; Scanlan and Lewthwaite, 1988; Brustad, 1988).

Clearly, parents can have a powerful effect on how their children think, feel and behave across a wide variety of activities.  Yet, in sport, parental impact may be magnified because of the cluster of unique variables which come together like in few other areas. Performance is normally overt and quantifiable. Participants and observers are typically in a position to make judgments on the relative competence of participants. As well, parents often compete  with each other vicariously through their children.

Proficiency in sport is also an important element of the social status and popularity of pre-adolescents and adolescents. Competition typically occurs in a climate having a great deal of energy and emotion. Furthermore, stress to succeed in sport is in itself an inherent ingredient of our youth sub-culture. Consequently, it seems evident that if parents are insensitive to the variety of pressures already acting on their child, and add even more, the child will drop-out and look for something else to do. On the other hand, mature parental support may be a powerful factor in helping kids to experience more of the rewards and fewer of the emotional bruises associated with involvement.

In an enlightening book, Bigelow, Moroney, and Hall (Bigelow et al., 2001) suggest that the solution to many of the ills of adult involvement in youth sports is “…to look at youth sports through the eyes of the children, and to serve the wants and the needs of those children at play” (p. 3).  For younger children, this often means,  as the title of their book explicit states, just letting kids play with minimal adult control or involvement.


Clearly, youth sports has become a major institution in our society. From a more child centered enterprise 50 years ago, it has become more structured and adult organized and administered. While some might argue for a return to “the good old days” when kids were left to pursue free play while developing all the leadership and organizational skills associated with team management and coordinating interpersonal issues, most would agree that the adult regulated model is here to stay. As attention to youth sports evolves, it is becoming apparent that just as the teachers in our schools require training, our youth sports coaches and administrators need to develop the knowledge, skills and values which guide coaching practices. While a small majority of child athletes will pursue specialization from an early age, most children simply want to have fun, develop sport skills, and associate with peers in sports programs. Consequently, coaches need to understand principles of youth development, and understand that how they organize and administer programs is inevitably more important than win/loss records. This connotes teaching age appropriate skills, including all children in activities, and minimizing the importance of outcomes. As children move into adolescents, coaches should continue to promote the processes which foster children’s intrinsic enjoyment of participation, and recognize that competition will take on increased emphasis, but still be secondary to the developmental concomitants of sport.

A secondary, but equally important theme which is associated with youth sports is its potential to reverse what has become known as an epidemic in childhood overweight and obesity.  While the latter derives from a complex of factors in modern society, it is clear that children have become more sedentary, and that involvement in sports programs could be helpful in increasing caloric expenditure during childhood, and into adolescents and adulthood. This issue appears to be particularly important in light of decreased physical education programming in schools. As well, special attention should be focused on underserved children who have fewer opportunities, participate less frequently, and have significantly higher rates of overweight and obesity.

As the importance of youth sports to children’s development and health are more clearly understood, educators, health professionals, and private/public policy makers and funders are developing strategies for both promoting, and regulating how programs are operationalized. Hopefully, by moving to a higher level of professionalization, creatively crafted incentives will promote more children becoming involved, and staying involved in well designed and implemented programs.



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[1] A recent report from Boston (i.e., Play Across Boston, 2002) found that approximately 79% of participation opportunities were provided out of school by the non-profit sector.

[2] Meeting of coaching advisory board held at Smith College Spring, 1996.

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