As an American Culture we are born and bred on our ability to compete. In the purest form, competition is a good thing, a natural mindset for an athlete and is a major factor in achieving excellence. Competitive Drive fuels one to push through the harder obstacles and achieve the goals that have been set; however this same factor can spawn negative effects if not utilized correctly and lead to intensified and unrealistic training and game schedules, over-emphasis on the pressure to win, injuries and burnout.
Research shows that there are more that 30 million kids participating in organized sports. If you ask these kids why they play the number one reason would be to have fun. Yes they are also playing to compete but their definition of competing as a child is much different from that of an adult. Steve Marshall, an assistant professor of epidemiology and orthopedics at the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill states "Youth Sports have become more that just kids having fun. Frankly it's beginning to get out of control. It's almost a natural obsession."
Kevin Kiernan writes in a NY Times Article "this country has gone berserk with the pressure of winning in youth sports. Nearly every day you see an example of some parent or coach gone mad. And when they do that, not only are dreams shattered but so is a young players' confidence." A study done by Michigan State University reveled that by the age of 13, about 70% of kids have quit sports. "Fun is at a minimum, there is too much pressure to win, coaches become angry and parents embarrass their children with over-zealous behavior." Coaches and parents sometimes will do whatever it takes to ensure that success but will soon realize that this behavior has simply pushed their children to quit. It is one thing to allow and support the child to dream of being an NCAA Athlete or Future Olympian and work towards those goals but it is completely another of pushing your kid in hurtful ways.
Who can change it? The answer lies in coaches and parents, as the leading role model for any child. Many are a positive force and do what is realistic to create the most balanced sports experience for a child. Yet for every good coach or parent there are others that have the wrong outlook. Coaches try and establish their worth and sometimes paychecks with their record of wins or losses and league, state or regional championships rather than how many kids that they have coached who are still playing. Parents try to live vicariously through their team or children's sports experiences. Parents' self-identity becomes attached to their child's team and begins to lose perspective on the core of why their child participates. It quickly becomes about the coach or parent and not the child and those numbers are growing every day as evident by the continual rise of dropout rates in youth sports.
What do we change? There are many factors that can be addressed but we need to change 3 leading issues associated with youth sports by re-evaluating our perspective in those areas.
Set Realistic Goals - there is a place in the game for every child. Not all children will play on the best team or at the top levels. This does not mean they cannot get there but for now the child needs to be placed at a level that is appropriate for their ability. We need to understand where our child's ability lies at the current time and how to improve those skills and abilities by placing them in appropriate programs. Those programs should be centered around development and not winning. Winning will happen if development occurs. Many families "club jump" always trying to get their kids on the top team in a club, regardless of it is right for their child.
Reduce Specialization - there is a tremendous amount of pressure to excel and specialize in one sport, especially at a younger age. Years ago it was rare that you played one sport but now the trend seems to be the opposite. Bruce Ward, the director of Physical Education and athletics at San Diego Public Schools, explains that "they're talented, terrific players but I don't see the joy. They look tired. They've played so much year-round they are like little professionals." The best athletes, in a particular age and sport, is being told that if you do not play just one sport you will not succeed and be left behind. There is no research that supports that claim and in fact if you ask the top professionals in major sports they will tell you that as a child they played multiple sports growing up and did not specialize until much later in life.
Loss of Core Values - the focus has shifted away from all of the positive benefits of youth sports (skill development, character and confidence building, social interaction, etc.) and emphasis has been placed on winning, regardless of what sacrifices need to be made. This short term focus will lead to long term destruction of the players' self-confidence as they begin to internally value the end result of performance rather than the process it takes to get there. That process is what will make them more successful in the end. There can be much learned from both success and failure as long as explained to children appropriately. How many times have you seen children on a team being treated differently when they win vs. when they lose, by both coaches and parents?
There is no doubt that one of the major factors why kids play is to compete and this is completely normal: kids want to win. That drive should be fostered but in a healthy way which will result in more enjoyment, growth and success for every child.