By Tamarra Evans-Sluga, Associate Clinical Mental Health Counselor
We love sports. Professional, prep, and youth athletics are an integral part of life for most Americans. Many individuals become active in team or individual sports starting in youth or adolescents. One obvious benefit to this is that youth develop a lifestyle of physical fitness. Also, there is a wealth of studies that highlight the psychological benefits of youth participation in sports.
Longitudinal studies generally find that youth who participate in organized sports in middle school and high school achieve more academic success and are offered better job prospects as adults. In team sports, youth learn the value of working with others toward a common goal. Youth athletes are more confident and have higher self-esteem. They learn resiliency by pushing through adversity during a game or a tough practice. Youth learn to dedicate themselves to an activity and put in the time and effort to hone their skills at it. Arguably, the greatest psychological benefit youth have with sports participation is that they have fun.
But just like most things in life, there is a flip side to the coin. What happens when youth are no longer having fun playing their sport? What factors contribute to the loss of fun for youth? Burnout is something to be cautious of. Athletics do require a time commitment to excel, but how much is too much? Because we do live in a society where great emphasis is placed on athletic prowess, a teen can feel tremendous internal and external pressures to succeed. A child may feel devastated or like a failure if they are cut from the team. With win, win, win as the focus on the court or the field, what happens when youth adopt that mentality off the field?
Parents are the most crucial factor in determining what kind of experience their child or teen has when participating in sports. Parents can also reinforce the positive character attributes that sports can teach. Here are a few things that parents can do to maximize the potential benefits of sports participation and minimize the potential pitfalls.
Nurture your child’s identity outside of the jersey. Your child is a complex person with so much to offer beyond what they do in their sport. Tap into his or her other interests. Athletics can be a great way to facilitate a bond with your child, but after throwing the football around together, engage them in other topics. Ask them how their friends are doing. Ask them if they faced any challenges that week and what feelings they are having about it. Ask them if they have an interest in any other hobbies. Show them that you value them for who they are as a whole person and they will learn to value themselves in the same way.
Let your child decide when they are ready to play sports. The early experiences that your child has with athletics will pave the way for future experiences. Forcing them into something when they do not seem ready will only hinder them, which leads to the next point.
Let your child decide if they want to play sports. You know your child best, and because you’ve been paying attention, you can see what makes them happy. If your child spends hours shooting hoops in the driveway every week, it is a safe bet that they would like to engage in organized basketball. So talk to them about it. Let’s face it, not all of us are athletically inclined. Maybe your child shows an aversion toward sports early on. Pushing them onto a team will not make them love it and can be psychologically detrimental to them.
Lead with positive reinforcement. After a game (win or lose), talk about what your child did well. Talk about what their teammates did well. Talk about what the coach did well. Talk about what they feel they would like to improve on, but do not talk about what they did wrong. Feedback is important, but the way it is delivered—whether in a positive light or negative light—is even more important.
Show your child what good sportsmanship looks like. Emotions run high during sporting events, but displaying emotional restraint and regulation provides a valuable lesson. The rules of respectable behavior are not put on hold during the game. If you would not hurl insults at a person on the street, do not do it to a referee. If you would not get in a physical altercation with a fellow parent in another public setting, why do it over an issue at your child’s game? Passion, intensity, and excitement are all a valuable part of the game as a participant and a spectator, but as a parent if you let your emotions get the better of you, you may be sending the wrong message to your child.
Finally, emphasize the process, not just the outcome. Life provides constant opportunities for learning and growth. Every experience, good or bad, offers us that opportunity. Athletics are the same way. At the final buzzer or whistle, the scoreboard tells who the winners are and who the losers are. However, the final score does not tell the whole story. Win or lose, commend your child on the hard work they are putting in. Find the lessons that exist in the process, because at the end of this life, there are no clear “winners” or “losers.”
You can do your part as a parent to help your child have an overall positive experience during their participation in athletics. If they’re having fun, you’ll have fun too. To find out more about parenting tips, find out about parenting classes or how to engage youth who may be experiencing adverse situations that are affecting their mental health, self-esteem or struggling with relationship building please contact SLCo Youth Services at 385-468-4500 to make an appointment with a counselor.