Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Do Sports Stop Being Fun?

April 20, 2009

The glamour, prestige and friendships that come from being in team sports bring a valued avenue of accomplishment and acceptance for children. The need to start young in learning athletic skills has pushed competitive team sports programs such as soccer, hockey, baseball, basketball, volleyball, midget football and wrestling into the elementary school years.

It is a sensitive time as neophytes to sports are given opportunities to play, develop skills and have fun in a context of games against other teams. Keeping score makes the games enjoyable.

I appreciate the dedication, attitudes and sacrifices of coaches. They give a lot of time and energy to their coaching. At the younger ages, many of these coaches are volunteers. Most have their sons or daughters participating on their team.

As I've observed the coaches and watched the games, I feel especially appreciative when:

- coaches take an interest in children, recognize their personalities and work with them on developing their skills.

- the language of the coach is respectful and considerate. Coaches with tempers set a poor example.

- children work hard, practice and get personalized attention through good coaching. Skills are learned and games are won or lost in practice.

- coaches know how to help their players accept defeat and put winning and losing in perspective.

- coaches give encouragement and support to players after a bad play or a strikeout.

- every child gets a chance to shine and to develop their skills over a season. Playing time is important. I like it when coaches rotate players to give lesser skilled players a chance to play. It is hard to learn on the bench.

- players are encouraged to be good sports and shrug off an unfavorable call by an official. The sportsmanship of the coach rubs off on the players.

- parents get to know the names of the teammates and shout encouragement or applaud good play. It is nice to hear other people rooting for your child. It's fun to cheer for their child. I like it when brothers and sisters, grandparents and friends come to cheer on the team. There is a good feeling in the stands, win or lose.

- players play well together as a team. I like the feeling children get from winning. When they lose, the enjoyment of the game, participation and friendships make the game worthwhile anyway.

Innocence lost. Our sports culture is robbing sports of many ways to have wholesome fun. What is wrong?

1. An overemphasis on winning. For children between the ages of 10 to 18, the number one reason why youth stop playing organized sports is that, "It's no fun." The game is fun when it is treated as a game and only a game. Then kids don't carry the extra burden of trying to measure up to unrealistic expectations or the pressure of winning.

A skills oriented coach reinforces effort and execution above winning. They challenge young athletes to improve their technique and convey that everyone has a role to play. Before age twelve, children learn best in a skills development environment instead of an emphasis on winning.

Coaches who are win-oriented harshly evaluate mistakes. They give the most recognition and attention to star players, emphasize beating a competitor and create rivalries between their own players.

Overzealous coaches and parents take the fun out of the game. However, teams that are having fun also win more of their games. It is fun to make a good play - to have skills that show up in the game.

2. The "Varsity" syndrome. Only a few players draw the resources and attention of the coaches. Athletes stuck on the bench aren’t having as much fun as those who participate. Even at the senior high level, coaches should be more aware of giving more players a chance to play than keeping the "best" players on the field all of the time.

At the younger ages, there ought to be fairly rigid participation rules so that team success depends on everyone’s skills. Parents can organize, take control and set the rules for participation. Moreover, coaches need more criteria to give them recognition for success than the won/loss percentage of the team.

A new book, "America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids," by Mark Hyman, gives a chilling and compelling account of the astounding rise of sports injuries in children due to overuse and overwork caused by overzealous coaches, parents and lax rules.

3. Intrusive parents. These are over-involved parents who are living their lives vicariously through their children’s achievements. They are the ones who criticize coaches, humiliate or harass their child over an inferior performance, compare scores and players, and berate officials, opposing players and fans.

They tend to overestimate their child’s ability and put pressure on their child to succeed. Children need to choose to play for themselves and not because of outside pressure. If it is their game and the parents stay in a support/observer role, then sports are a positive influence.

4. Arrogant attitudes. Unfortunately there are too many prima donnas who taunt and mock opponents, have tantrums to officials’ judgments and feel they are too good to make mistakes. Coaches and parents can nip these attitudes in the bud so young athletes learn self control and respect for others.

Who is in charge? Coaches and parents can do a lot to ensure a competitive environment that contributes to the emotional and physical health of youth athletes. Unfortunately, it can work the other way.