Psychology of Youth Sports Research Paper

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Youth   sports  are  adult-organized sports  programs for children and youth, typically between the ages of 7 and   18   years,   which   have   designated    coaches, organized  practices,  and scheduled competitions (Gould  1982). There is an estimated  22 million youth in the USA who participate in nonschool  youth sports programs. There are equally high percentages  of children and youth  in Australia, Brazil, Canada, and many Asian and European countries, who participate in youth sport programs through clubs or schools (De Knop  et al. 1996). Most of these programs are aimed at  mass  participation rather  than  focused  on  developing elite athletes.

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The  psychology  of  youth   sports,   as  an  area  of scholarly  inquiry,  is relatively  new. Research  in this field did not  start  to proliferate  until  the 1980s. The research developed out of concern by professionals for the  educational value  of  youth  sports  participation and the well-being of the children involved. The topics that have been most often addressed on the psychology of  youth  sports  include  psychological  readiness  for youth sports participation, the benefits and detriments of youth  sport  participation, participant motivation and attrition, and adult involvement in youth sports.

1.    Psychological Readiness For Youth Sport Participation

Although the question  of when children should begin competing in sports appears simplistic on the surface, it  is  very  complex.  Readiness,   in  youth   sports,   is viewed as the ability of a child to handle successfully all the demands presented in competitive sports. Physicians   and   educators  in  the  first  half  of  the twentieth  century  believed that  the biological  maturation of children was the sole determiner of their readiness to perform sport skills. Contemporary researchers,  however,  view biological,  motoric,  and cognitive readiness  as interacting  with psychological readiness to handle the demands of competitive sport. Factors   that  have  been  considered  include  motivational and cognitive readiness to compete, physical maturation and  body  size, the  knowledge  and  skill level of the child, and the type of sport. Unfortunately, these factors have not been studied together  systematically in the area of youth sports.

1.1    Motivational And Cognitive Readiness

The  research  literature   has  long  shown  that   most children are not capable of consistently competitive or cooperative  behavior  until the age of five years (Greenberg  1932). Competitive  sport  involves setting abstract standards and  goals  for  one’s performance and this is usually not possible for children under five years of age. Children also need to have sufficient emotional competence to handle stressful situations inherent in competitive sports. Youth sports participation  also  requires  a  number  of  cognitive  skills. These include the child’s ability to process a consider-able  amount   of  information about   the  sport,  such as rules, skill techniques, and strategies. Most children before the age of five have attention spans that are too short  to  stay  on  task  in sports  games.  In  addition, children are not accurate  judges of their competence until  they  have  developed  the  ability  to  understand that winning and losing are the products of interactive causal factors such as physical skill, strategy, preparation,   effort,   opponent  difficulty,   and   luck.   This cognitive ability may not be well developed in children before the age of 12 years (Kaley and Cloutier  1984, Nicholls 1978). Thus, children who are not motivationally  and cognitively ready to meet the demands of a competitive  sports  program may not experience the same success and enjoyment as those who have this readiness and could be likely candidates  for sport withdrawal.   Gibson   (1977)  found   that   Australian boys, aged 10 to 13 years, who participated in adult-style football games, lost interest in participation over the  course  of  the  season.  Whether  modified  youth sports programs (e.g., those with simplified rules, less emphasis on competition, shorter  practices, equal playing time) would attenuate negative experiences for children who are not yet emotionally  and cognitively ready  for  adult-styled  games has  not  been systematically studied.

1.2     Physical Maturation  Readiness

Even when children  have the motivational and  cognitive readiness to learn sports skills and to compete, some  may  not  have  the  physical  maturation to  be reasonably successful  with  other  agemates  in  their chosen  sports  program. Because children  mature  at different rates, some 10-year-old children will be more like a 12-year-old  child physically  and  some will be more   like   an   eight-year-old    child.   When   sports programs do not classify children by physical maturity or  weight  (e.g.,  weight  classifications  in  wrestling), they usually favor the early maturer (boys in particular). The later maturing  boy will usually have less strength,  endurance, and  skeletal  maturity than  his average peers. This individual  variation  in biological maturity has  a  direct  influence  on  the  child’s  self-perceptions in sport and chances of success. For instance,  teams  that  win  the  Little  League  World Series comprise players who are maturationally two to three years older than their chronological age.

1.3    Knowledge And Skill Level

Children  may be physically and  psychologically  mature enough to compete in organized sports, but unless they have the requisite  skills and some knowledge of the  activity,  positioning,   and  game  rules,  they  will have little early success. By six to eight years of age, most fundamental motor  skills, such as running, jumping,  catching,  and  striking,  are reasonably well developed  in the  majority  of children  (Branta  et al. 1984). However,  a  number  of  six to  eight-year-old children  have not  yet developed  movement  patterns mature  enough  to  participate successfully  in  sport. Whether  children with immature  movement  patterns can still benefit  from  youth  sports  participation has not  been studied,  but  may quite  well depend  on the instructional  focus   and   game   modifications  in  a particular sport program. Different  coaches and pro- grams  place  different  emphases  on  the  motor,  cognitive, and competitive skills of a sport.

1.4    Type Of Sport

Different sports require different levels of physical and cognitive / emotional  maturity. For  instance,  to  play baseball / softball  effectively, a child must  be able to throw the appropriate distance, run, bat, and catch, as well as remember where to make the play for a specific situation.  Competitive swimming and running require heavy  physiological  demands  on  the  cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Each sport has its own unique set of rules, strategies, and skills to be learned. Unfortunately, the  criteria  of  readiness  for  specific sports  have not been studied  systematically.  Tests of readiness  exist  in  school-related subjects,  but  none exist for  youth  sports.  Most  youth  sport  programs, however,  modify the rules, equipment, and  game to accommodate the skill levels and lack of readiness of age-grouped   participants. These  modifications  also need systematic  and  longitudinal study  to determine whether they are of any benefit to those participating.

2.    Psychological Benefits And Risks Of Youth Sport Participation

For  children  who  are  ready  to  participate in  competitive   sports,   there   are   a  number   of  potential benefits. Proponents of youth  sport  programs maintain that youth sports provide an effective medium for psychosocial development such as the development of social skills, cooperativeness, persistence, achievement motivation, emotional  control,  responsibility,  self-confidence and self-esteem, sportsmanship, and leadership. Critics, on the other  hand,  maintain  that  youth sports place excessive psychological and physical stress on children,  diminish  the value of play as a free and spontaneous outlet for expression, and tempt participants  to violate moral  norms.  However,  little systematic study has been conducted  to determine any causal changes, positively or negatively, from participation  in youth sports.

2.1    Benefits

The  majority   of  studies  examining  the  benefits  of youth  sports  participation have  been  correlational.

These studies indicate that regular participation in organized  sport  activities is associated  with increases in physical self-esteem, feelings of physical well-being, and  peer  acceptance  (Brustad  1993). Whether  participation in  sport  results  in  positive  psychological effects for children  or whether  children  who already possess these positive characteristics  gravitate  toward sport  is still uncertain. A few studies have examined the influence of coaching behavior  on children’s selfesteem and ability perceptions and found that coaches’ feedback  style can influence the self-esteem and  perceived competence of children across a season of competition (Smoll  and  Smith  1996). However,  research on the benefit of youth sports to moral development,  sportsmanship, and other  socialization outcomes  has  received  no  consistent  support   other than  from self-report  studies. Self-report  studies suggest that the positive outcomes outweigh the negatives.

2.2    Risks

The most frequently cited psychological risks to youth sports participation are competitive stress and anxiety, lowered self-esteem, and reduced  moral  competency. Participation in youth  sports  has the potential  to be stressful to children because of the uncertainty of competitive   outcomes   and   demands   imposed   on players. However, most of the research on the anxiety levels of children before and after competition found that   children  typically  report   rather   low  levels  of stress, and that these levels of stress are no higher than other  evaluative  activities  typically  found  in school programs (e.g., academic  tests, music competitions). Children  who  tend  to  have  high  competitive  trait anxiety, low self-esteem, and low performance expectations, report greater stress than children who are low competitive trait anxious, high in self-esteem, and high in their performance expectations. The experience of stress does not  imply that  competition is necessarily detrimental to children  if there  are no consequences beyond  a temporary unpleasantness associated  with the child’s emotional  state. However, consequences of stress that  lead to  loss of sleep, loss of appetite,  or dropping  out of the sport,  are considered detrimental to children.

The  question   of  whether   youth   sports   has  an influence on children’s moral  behavior  is difficult to ascertain   because  the  experiences  children  have  in sport  are not uniform  in terms of the social relationships   and   interactions  that   shape   behavior.   The research  in this  area  has  also  been  correlational in nature. The sport and delinquency research has shown a  negative  relationship between  sport  participation and  delinquent  behavior,  however,  explanations for the relationship are unclear. Most of the contemporary research  on moral  reasoning  and aggression  in sport has  been conducted  by Brenda  Bredemeier  and  her colleagues  (Shields  and  Bredemeier  1995). This  research has shown that reasoning about moral issues in sport  is significantly  higher  for nonathletes than  for athletes  but  not  so for moral  problems  in nonsport settings. Shields and Bredemeier suggest that  athletes use a concept they call ‘game reasoning,’ a unique type of moral reasoning that is legitimized within the sport context.  The  divergence  between  life reasoning  and game reasoning becomes greater with age and experience in sport.  The genesis, developmental  course, and behavioral  implications  of game reasoning  await further  research.

3.     Participant Motivation And Attrition

The  importance of participant motivation in youth sport relates to beliefs that participation patterns  and experiences in youth  sports strongly influence overall active lifestyles in adolescence and adulthood and that attrition is the  consequence  of  undesirable  psychological experiences in youth sports. The dropout problem in adolescence is common in many countries, especially among girls. Much of the early research in participation motivation and  attrition has  been  descriptive.  Investigators found  generally  that  young athletes participate in sports primarily to have fun, for excitement, to improve their skills, to be with friends and  make  new friends,  and  for  success. These  participation reasons can be categorized  into enjoyment, competence,  affiliation,  and competition motives, respectively. These motives tend to generalize cross-nationally. The most common motives, worldwide, for taking part in youth sports are instrinsic (e.g., for enjoyment and affiliation reasons), rather than competitive (De Knop et al. 1996). Although, children are likely  to  cite  multiple  motives,  there  are  few  age, gender, experience, and sport-type  differences.

Fewer  studies  have  documented the  reasons  for children’s discontinuation in youth sports. Those studies have indicated that competiveness of the program, conflicts  with coaches,  insufficient  success, other  interests,  and lack of fun are the major  reason for  discontinuing  in  a  sport.   However,   the  most common motive across studies for withdrawal  from a sport had to do with conflicting interests on the part of the  child,  especially during  adolescence.  The  major problems   with  these  studies  are  their  inability   to discern whether a conflict of interests is due to a dissatisfaction with their sport experience or is due to more practical reasons. A second problem is the inconsistency  among  studies  in the definition  of the term ‘dropout.’  Some studies have defined a dropout as one who discontinues in the sport in which he or she was previously  participating. However,  a number  of studies have found that these individuals do not drop out of sport  altogether,  but rather  transfer  from one sport  to another. Even the small percentage  of those who have withdrawn from sport altogether have mostly returned   to  their  sport  sometime  later  (Weiss  and Gould  1986). Thus, the motives for withdrawal  from sport   may  be  based   on  practical,   age-related,   or negative reasons.

More recently, theoretically-based studies have emerged to supplement  the initial descriptive research on this topic. The theoretical  frameworks  most commonly  used  to  explain  children’s  sport  involvement and  withdrawal   are  competence  motivation theory (Harter  1978), achievement  goal-orientation theories (Nicholls 1984), and cognitive evaluation theory (Deci and Ryan 1985). These theories regard self-perceptions of competence as central influences on a child’s motivated behavior. Children who perceive themselves to  be highly  competent  in a  sport  should  maintain interest  in participating and  mastering  that  sport.  In contrast, children who perceive themselves to have low competence in a sport should not maintain persistence and  interest.  In  addition,  goal-orientation  theories also  emphasize  that   children  approach their  sport participation with different goals and ways of judging their competence. Children having a task-oriented approach to sport participation hold a self-referenced view to judge their achievement.  Children  having an ego-oriented  approach use social comparison information  to judge their success. Task-oriented children should be motivated to participate and remain in sport as long as they have an appropriate level of personal challenge. Ego-oriented children should be motivated to persist in sport only if they perceive that they have more  ability  than  their  socially comparative others. These theoretical  predictions  have been supported by a number  of empirical studies. Thus, children tend to persist  in sport  if they  perceive they  have  the  competence to be successful, either in their personal challenges or as compared  with others  in their program.

Very few studies on participation motivation have been conducted  longitudinally or prospectively.  It is reasonable  to assume that a child’s motives for participation will be shaped over time by a number of intrapersonal and  contextual  factors.  Second,  retrospective studies on discontinued participation in youth sports  do  not  allow  for  causal  inferences.  One prospective study (Ommundsen and Vaglum 1991) examined the relationship of low perceived competence in soccer and social skills with later dropout from boys’ soccer over a 16-month period. Low perceived soccer and social competence negatively influenced  soccer persistence.  More  prospective studies are needed looking  at additional factors  such as type of program, type of sport,  personal  characteristics of the coaches, and achievement orientations of the children.

4.    Adult Involvement In Youth Sports

There is general consensus that  the benefits, negative experiences,  and  children’s  motivation surrounding youth  sports  are  influenced  strongly  by  the  adults involved, coaches and parents in particular. Unfortunately this area of youth research has received the least attention. Again, the majority of the work has been correlational and assessed from the child’s perspective.  In  terms  of parental  influence,  parental support  is linked to greater  initiation  and  continued participation in sport,  as well as higher levels of intrinsic  motivation. Parental   pressure  is linked  to greater  sport  anxiety  and  lower enjoyment.  Parental judgments of their child’s competence are related strongly to the child’s self-perceptions.

Much  of the research on the influence of coaching behavior  on  children’s  self-perceptions  and  motivation has been conducted  by Ronald  Smith and Frank Smoll (Smith and Smoll 1996). In one of the few experimental  studies on coaching  behavior,  Smith et al. (1979) showed that young athletes, whose coaches were trained  to use a positive approach to coaching (frequent encouragement, positive reinforcement, corrective feedback),  had significantly higher self-esteem ratings  over  the  course  of a  season  compared  with players whose coaches received no additional training. Low self-esteem children  who played for the trained coaches showed the greatest increases in self-esteem.

5.    A Biopsychosocial Perspective On Youth Sports

Researchers   in  the  psychology  of  youth  sports  are calling for a more  biopsychosocial approach  (Smith and Smoll 1996). For instance, in explaining children’s motivation and  attrition in  sport,  the  influences  of training  conditioning,  physical  growth,   and  maturation should be considered in concert with self-perceptions and adult influences. Other questions from this perspective include: What are the long-term biopsychosocial effects of competition in youth sports at various intensity levels? and How do the factors of motor  development,  biological  maturity, physiological function, and psychosocial development interact to determine readiness for and success in sport competition?   To  examine   these  questions   adequately, youth sports researchers  have called for longitudinal, systematic  research  programs that  consider  development  in  the  design  of  studies  and  that  focus  on  a number  of interrelated questions.


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