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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.
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.
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.
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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