Few aspects of Western culture touch as many people or command as much attention as athletics. Historically, athletics helped shape the beliefs, values, and behavior of many societies. The Greeks, for example, created the Olympic games to celebrate cultural, artistic, and individual excellence. Athletic training was part of every Greek boy’s education and was intended to instill “arête,” meaning a sense of skill, dignity, honor, and valor. Today, many people believe strongly that athletics builds character and helps individuals develop the physical, social, and emotional competencies required to succeed in the modern world.
Trends In Participation
Athletics and organized sport are distinguished from physical activity by their systematic structure and competitive nature. Although there is no precise accounting of the number of youth or adults who participate in sports programs, estimates suggest that 15 to 20 million 5to 18-year-olds participate in community sports programs and an additional 6 million 14 to 18-year-olds are involved in school athletic programs. Youth sport participation increased substantially over the second half of the 20th century, but recent evidence suggests a leveling or decline in overall rate. Patterns in these rates vary by sport, age, gender, racial or ethnic status, and socioeconomic status.
Although the number of youth playing historically popular team sports of basketball, baseball, soccer, football, and volleyball remains high, only soccer and basketball have increased participation since 1990. Participation in organized athletics peaks in childhood and adolescence, whereas younger children and adults are more likely to engage in sport or physical activity on their own. By age 15, however, 75% of youth drop out of sports. Athletics has always involved more males than females, although this gap is closing. The Title IX legislation of 1972 dramatically increased opportunities for girls to participate in school-based athletics. Since then, the number of female athletes has increased more than 800%. In nonscholastic sports, however, girls start later (10 years old vs. 8 years old) and drop out earlier than boys. Minority youth of all ages are less likely than whites to be involved in athletics. Lack of opportunity may be a primary factor for this disparity. Although athletic programs flourish in wealthier communities, poor urban communities, which are overrepresented by minority individuals, may not have the financial and social capital to provide adequate facilities, supervision, or programming.
Benefits And Disadvantages To Athletic Participation
The reasons for and the benefits of participating in athletics cluster into three primary areas of human development: (a) physical development (e.g., get exercise and stay in shape, learn and improve physical skills, demonstrate physical competence), (b) affective motivational development (e.g., have fun, be active, do something challenging), and (c) social development (e.g., play as part of a team, make new friends, get coach’s/parent’s approval).
The Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health clearly documented the physical health and fitness benefits derived from regular physical activity, including athletic participation. Youth sports help children stay fit and develop the fundamental motor skills needed for advanced skill development across sports and leisure contexts. Basic skill development promotes positive perceptions about ones’ athletic abilities and facilitates lifetime interest, enjoyment, and participation in physical activity. Youth who play sports tend to maintain more active lifestyles through adulthood, reducing their lifetime risk for obesity and related health problems.
Conversely, sport participation also carries heightened risk for physical injury. Almost half of youth athletes report having at least one injury during an athletic season. Sixty-five percent of injuries are minor, but at least 3 to 5 million youth suffer some form of sport related injury each year that is serious enough to require emergency room treatment. Risk for injury is elevated by age (older), type of sport (collision and contact), lack of coach education regarding injury, hazardous field and playing conditions, inadequate equipment, and training errors or poor instruction.
Athletics is a key context for experiencing and expressing emotions, both positive and negative. More is known about sport’s influence on negative emotions (e.g., anxiety, shame, anger) than positive emotions (e.g., enjoyment, pride from accomplishments). Young athletes’ enjoyment is related to intrapersonal factors, such as perceived competence and approach oriented achievement goals, and to interpersonal factors of lower parental pressure, more parental emotional involvement, and better teaching environment. Sport enjoyment is also related to positive outcomes such as sport commitment and long-term participation.
In contrast, sport participation sometimes elicits negative emotions such as anxiety, shame, and anger. Sport anxiety is related to the intrapersonal factors of low self-esteem, avoidance-oriented achievement goals, and performance expectations, and to the situational factors of higher parental pressure and greater social evaluation. Youth experiencing high levels of sport anxiety are likely to have more problems with injury, gastrointestinal ailments, and sleep or eating disturbances. They are also more likely to drop out of sports. Sports, as competitive and evaluative contexts, are ideal for helping youth recognize and regulate their own emotions and develop emotional intelligence (e.g., empathy, effective interpersonal skills).
Development of social competence, as reflected in one’s peer interactions and peer relations, is also central to the athletic context. Athletes report considerable social benefits of participating in sports, such as making friends, enhancing social skills, and gaining confidence in relating to peers. It is not known, however, whether athletics promotes these more than other structured activities. In general, athletic competence is strongly associated with peer acceptance for children and adolescents. Male and female high school athletes who are participating in traditionally gender appropriate sports are more likely to be rated as popular by their peers. Often, athletes develop a “best friend” friendship with someone involved in their sport or on their team. Help and guidance, emotional support, good conflict resolution, loyalty, intimacy, trust, and prosocial behaviors typically characterize these friendships. Close friendships and cohesive teams, however, can also have negative influence on individuals’ sociomoral development. Athletes are more likely to commit aggressive acts or cheat during competition if prevailing team or friends’ norms and beliefs condone these behaviors.
Systems And Contextual View Of Athletics
The benefit from athletics, particularly for youth, is substantially a function of the quality of the interactions youth have with involved adults (e.g., parents, coaches, officials, and spectators) and the structure and philosophy of the community organizations overseeing sports programs.
Parents exert a powerful influence on youth sport experiences. They are usually the ones to initiate and encourage their children’s participation in athletics and have a positive effect on experiences by reinforcing skill development, praising effort, modeling appropriate behavior, and focusing on their children’s needs and expectations. Conversely, parents can undermine youth sport experiences by exerting pressure, by behaving inappropriately, and by using unkind words and actions.
Coaches also determine the quality of youths’ athletic experiences. Despite their powerful socializing influence, little is known about coaches’ characteristics. Most volunteer youth sport coaches are involved because their child is participating. They commonly have some athletic experience, but only about 10% are trained in coaching techniques. Experimental research has indicated that coaches can be trained to use specific techniques for encouraging their players, for helping their players to develop skills, and for avoiding punishment and negative interactions. Youth who play for trained coaches experience less anxiety, higher motivation, higher perceived competence, and greater enjoyment and are more likely to return to play the following year. Trained coaches also help build self-esteem, especially in those players who start the season with low self-esteem. Coaches who use positive praise and instruction frequently and liberally, and eliminate punishing tactics, are more likely to foster the positive psychosocial effects of athletics.
The operating structure and philosophy of the athletic organization are also critical influences. Some youth sports leagues have adopted a more “professional” philosophy that has contributed to a “win at all costs” mentality and to increased competitiveness, expectations, and pressure on youth. Additionally, many young athletes are exposed to values that tolerate disrespectful behavior and cheating. These factors contribute to high rates of negative experiences, “burnout,” and dropout. Overall, evidence indicates that the benefits of athletics come not from simply participating, but from participating in a program in which there are positive interactions with caring, supportive adults and in which the teaching of sport skills and healthy development are purposefully planned and structured.
- American College of Sports Medicine, http://www.acsm.org/ Coakley, (2004). Sport in society: Issues and controversies. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Horn, T. (Ed.). (2002). Advances in sport psychology (2nd ). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, Michigan State, http://ed-web3.educ.msu.edu/ysi
- Singer, N., Hausenblas, H. A., & Janelle, C. M. (2001). Handbook of sport psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.
- Weiss, R. (2004). Developmental sport and exercise psychology: A lifespan approach. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.