Too frequently, my patients’ office visits become a sort of sports commentary—and not in a good way. Parents of young athletes complain about team losses, harshly criticize their child’s athletic performance, express anger at coaches…and the youths themselves vent about how unhappy they are with whatever sport they’re involved in.

As someone who has been involved in sports most of my adult life, and who has seen the enormous benefits of participating in an organized sport, how do I respond? 

I have coached youth recreational ice hockey for the better part of the last decade. I played the game myself since high school, currently playing in men’s leagues two to three times a week, year round. So I know the game from both sides—as a team member and as a coach.

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USA Hockey, a national organization, supports instructional and recreational ice hockey for all ages.  USA Hockey coach certification  requires passing a background check, as well as taking and passing a series of educational seminars, both in person and online, At the level corresponding to the age of the youths they will be coaching. It is also preferred that coaches have played the sport themselves.

In addition, USA Hockey-certified coaches must demonstrate mastery of normal child development, age-appropriate health promotion, skills development, injury prevention and how to assess for concussion. And they are given instructions and recommendations for how to communicate positively and effectively with youth participants, to assure enjoyment and a sense of fulfillment from playing the game.

This is in stark contrast to my personal experience while observing my son’s involvement in sports besides ice hockey. For example, in youth baseball, I have observed that all too often what should be a great experience becomes predominantly negative. In fact, some players are given very little opportunity to participate and are belittled, mocked and even verbally abused by coaches.

Frequently, I have seen poor role modeling by coaches when it comes to losing games. In fact, it seems to me that for some of these youth sports, the coaches only had to pass a background check. They may have no experience working with youth, no personal experience with playing the sport and often choose, as assistants, friends who also have no training or experience. Lately I’ve wondered what exactly is the most important outcome to aim for in youth sports? Is winning the primary goal? Or should coaches be aware of a bigger responsibility—such as supporting youths to achieve age-appropriate developmental tasks?

For developmental reasons, it has been recommended that children should not become involved in organized sports until age six. This is based on physical, psychological and cognitive considerations. For young athletes, the focus should be on physical activity, having fun and learning skills. Unfortunately, this is often at odds with coach and parent goals of winning.

Less than 20% of Little League coaches and less than 8% of high school coaches have received any formal coaching education or training. Unfortunately, there are no well-established federal regulations regarding training of recreational or high school coaches. Additionally, attrition rates for sports are high—approaching 80% by age 15. Considering that 75% of US families with school age children have at least one child who is participating in an organized sport, I find this disheartening.

In fact, studies have shown that fairness, equal participation and skill development rank above winning in terms of importance for young athletes. Discordant goals that are not in sync with developmental needs can lead to stress and unhappiness for youth athletes and, ultimately, contribute to attrition. Given the physical and mental health risks associated with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, doesn’t it make sense to figure out how best to keep kids involved in sports—and to keep participating into adulthood?

To me, the solution rests with the adults involved in training youths. Coaches who have received formal instruction in coaching effectiveness can enhance player experience; improve satisfaction, motivation, self-esteem, and cooperation; and reduce attrition amongst players. Studies have consistently shown that youth participation in sports has multiple, significant positive effects. These benefits cross many developmental domains, including reduction of childhood obesity and its associated health risks; reduced risk for diabetes, breast cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease; promotion of healthy eating habits, including more consumption of fruits and vegetables; and reduction of engagement in health-endangering activities, such as smoking, drug use and unprotected sexual intercourse. There is evidence of lower incidence of anxiety and depression, as well as of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in youths who are involved in sports. Improved self-confidence, body image and academic achievement are also reported. Additionally, social intelligence, emotional control, leadership and time management appear to improve in youth participating in sports.

In fact, as long as injury awareness and prevention is in place, scientific evidence overwhelmingly points to gains associated with youth sports participation. Yet for so many, the experience is primarily negative, especially the effects on self-esteem, which lead to discontinuing the sport. It does seem that this could be avoided for most youths if the overall philosophy of youth sports could change from a focus on winning—with its false sense of glory—to an emphasis on fun, positive feedback, praise and the joy of physical activity and skill mastery. The latter especially would be more age appropriate for the youngest youth participants, and would provide a valuable educational foundation that focuses on strength, conditioning, nutrition and safety. 

In order for this to happen, sports organizations need to require that coaches be formally trained in player safety and sportsmanship. In no study was there a relationship between healthy development and winning. In fact, I believe that winning should be deemphasized. Modeling how to lose with grace, and developing an understanding that life goes on after a loss should be of utmost importance. These are the valuable life lessons that will have positive effects on the nurturing of our children as they grow to young adulthood. These are the concepts that I will continue to pass on to my patients and their families as they navigate what can be the precarious, unpredictable world of youth sports. And I will continue to resist getting caught up in the more aggressive misperception that winning games is the most important outcome.

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