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Sports and kids: Pathway to healthy development or to unhealthy competition?

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An interview with Marianne Engle, Ph.D., sports psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at the NYU Child Study Center

Sports are big news. Special sports sections in print and television news media keep expanding; scores make headlines; teams have loyal followers and vocal detractors; outstanding players have fan clubs and serve as role models for kids. Sports are also big business. In addition to tickets to events, a lot of clothing and equipment are sold. But, in addition to all the positive hype, scandals about drugs and personal bad behavior tarnish the image of some talented and highly paid athletes. And stressed out kids are dropping out of sports. To find out more about current trends in sports and kids, AOK interviewed Marianne Engle, Ph. D., a sports psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at the NYU Child Study Center.

How significant is sports in the lives of children and adolescents? How many are actually involved in sports?
Sports participation is a major factor in the development of most American children.
About 20 million American children ages 6 through 16 play organized out-of-school sports, and about 25 million youth play competitive school sports. 30 to 45 million kids ages 6 through 18 participate in at least one school or community-based athletic program

What are the top team sports for children ages 6 through 17?
Here's how they rank. 1.) Basketball: Over 4 million players. 2.) Baseball: Over 2 1/2 million players. 3.) Outdoor soccer: Over 2 million players. 4.) Touch football: About 2 million players. 5.) Court volleyball: Almost two million players.

What do children gain from participating in sports?
The gains are numerous. Research has shown that sports contribute to psychological well-being by reducing anxiety and depression and enhancing self-esteem. In sports kids find a social milieu that can promote a spirit of social interaction, cooperation and friendship. Sports help kids think critically and solve problems, build self-discipline, trust, respect for others, leadership ad coping skills, all of which form the foundation of character building. Sports have also been shown to improve academic and occupational outcomes, lower school dropout and deter delinquency. And, of course, sports develop the mind/body connection by strengthening the body and training the mind to use it for action and reaction.

Girls have been participating more in sports. Are there specific benefits for girls?
Girls who play sports are more comfortable taking leadership roles in group settings. They learn to set goals and achieve them. Also, according to recent research, female athletes have been shown to have their first intercourse later in adolescence and are less likely to get pregnant than female non-athletes.

Should kids start sports at an early age?
Children younger than 5 years of age should be involved in exploration and simple motor activities. For young children, just keep them moving and having fun, and don't focus too much on organized games. For school age children, focus on developing skills, teamwork and trying out different sports. Avoid early specialization and too much game time. Before that, team sports should focus on learning the games and trying out many different positions on each team. Eager, fun-loving children can turn off sports when the competition feels too heavy too early.

What factors affect a child's success in athletics?
Self-selection is important. When children choose on their own to participate in a sport their motivation to succeed is strengthened. Also important is how the child views competitiveness; is winning everything or just a detail of the game? Support and positive reinforcement from family, peer group, teachers and coaches can help a child to develop a positive sense of self in sport participation. Warm, positive, effective coaching and parenting contribute in a big way to kids' motivation and success. Making sports fun with measurable outcomes, like skill development, builds toward success.

What if a kid doesn't want to join a team?
Organized team participation isn't for all children; there are many options. Children can be encouraged to play more individually based sports such as tennis, swimming, bowling, gymnastics, self-defense sports, and many other activities. Respect and support children's interests in other areas, such as music and other arts, but encourage them to be physically active.

Is there a downside to children participating in sports?
Parents should be sure that their child's sports program and equipment are safe and age-appropriate. Four million children seek emergency-room treatment for sports injuries every year; another 8 million are treated for such injuries by family physicians. Parents should also keep in mind that organized sports participation should not begin until age six, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Until that time unstructured play is recommended. Further, overuse injuries are increasing in children who play the same sport year round. Some softball/baseball players play more games as children than professionals do.

Are there pitfalls that parents should try to avoid?
Parents can become overly involved in their children's sports and have unrealistic expectations for success. Some parents, unwittingly or intentionally, transmit the message that winning is all-important. In reality, it's the skills and teamwork that are the most important for children. Parents can help balance their children's lives so that they don't become overly involved and neglect other areas of their lives.

What are some trends in children's sports participation that are of concern?
There's cause for alarm in several areas, in and out of schools. In schools, there's been a drop in the number of students enrolled in daily physical education classes, so that one in four children do not attend any school physical education class. Seventy percent of children drop out of organized sports by the age of 13. Nearly half of young people ages 12 through 21 and more than one-third of high school students do not participate in any vigorous physical activity on a regular basis. Fewer than one out of four children get 20 minutes of vigorous daily exercise. The percentage of overweight young Americans has more than doubled in the past 30 years.

What are the costs of physical inactivity?
Physical inactivity exacts a huge toll. It was estimated to cause 1.9 million deaths worldwide in 2000, and 10 to 16 percent of cases each of breast cancer, colon cancer and diabetes. In the United States, inactivity contributed to an estimated $75 billion in medical costs in 2000 alone.

How should a parent evaluate the pros and cons of sports for kids?
The benefits of sports outweigh the negatives, so it's the responsibility of parents, schools and others involved in the lives of kids to help make sports a successful and pleasurable experience.