Development refers to physical, cognitive, emotional, and psychological changes across the life span. Considering development within sport and exercise contexts allows for more realistic expectations regarding participants’ attitudes, perceptions, affect, and behavior and helps us account for important differences in physical activity settings. Theories commonly emphasize that development is a result of the interaction between personal and contextual factors. While the nature–nurture debate in the past was considered winnable, presently there is strong consensus that both individual factors (e.g., biological, cognitive, psychological) and environmental factors (e.g., interpersonal interactions, social relationships, roles, cultural norms) together influence the growth and development of individuals. In this entry, discussion of developmental changes acknowledges that changes are organized in character, are based on the earlier self, and engender a sense of continuity alongside transformation.
Each theory of development provides a different lens or perspective for explaining the important aspects of development, providing additional insights into why we grow and change the way that we do. Theories differ regarding when development occurs. Some earlier theorists like Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget regarded childhood and adolescence as the primary time periods for growth, while others like Erik Erikson focus on change and development over the entire lifespan. Theories also differ regarding explanations of how we change and develop, with different perspectives emphasizing the driving force behind developmental change as either coming from outside or from within the individual. For example, learning theory (e.g., Albert Bandura) and behaviorism (e.g., B. F. Skinner, John B. Watson) assert that much of development is a result of the environments we are placed in, whether focusing on the behaviors that other people show or the reinforcement patterns they use. Other theorists suggested that characteristics contained within individuals are most important in influencing development, based on such biological factors as brain systems, neurotransmitters, or genes or personality traits. While research examining developmental differences in adulthood lags behind research examining development of youth, some of the most successful and well-accepted theories today embrace individual factors and contextual factors, as well as the interaction between the two, as important considerations to be made across the lifespan.
Development occurs within a context, but individuals are active in their own development and simultaneously act upon the context. For example, Uri Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model has provided a framework that has fostered a more ecologically valid (real world) consideration of development as the interrelated forces or systems (including the immediate social context and the cultural context) that influence and are influenced by the individual. A systems perspective integrates aspects of the individual as well as the context in explaining development, thus serving as a bridge in the nature versus nurture debate by acknowledging the mutually influential role of both. Other common theories in sport psychology (e.g., self-determination theory, achievement goal theory) similarly emphasize the importance of both individual factors like basic need satisfaction or goal orientations and contextual factors like autonomy-supportive behaviors or motivational climate as mutual predictors of behavior.
Development is both systematic by following general patterns within populations and idiographic by highlighting specific individual differences in pathways. Thus, variations in developmental trends will occur across individuals and across contexts. Below are several common trends in development identified in the sport and exercise literature, including physical activity levels, reasons for participation, social development, motivational orientations, and self-perceptions. Developmental considerations regarding contextual factors are also addressed in the following sections.
Physical Activity Level
Participation in sports and any physical activity peaks in early adolescence and then steadily declines. This is problematic as physical activity represents an opportunity to curb the increasing disease rate and biological declines that accompany aging. Physical activity habits developed in youth tend to be predictive of future behaviors. Adults over 65 represent a growing population and are the most sedentary segment of the population, yet they have received relatively little attention in the sport and exercise literature. Physical activity behaviors associated with age are highly reflective of the life context and the associated norms, values, and beliefs for different age groups (e.g., socialization, education, culture, employment).
Reasons for Participation in Sport or Physical Activity
Children and adolescents most often cite enjoyment, affiliation, and competence development as primary reasons for engaging in sport. Although children typically move in and out of particular sports to sample different activities, they also cite reasons for discontinuing sport that include overemphasis on winning, issues with the coach, lack of playing time, and lack of enjoyment. As children enter adolescence, they may also discontinue sport because of increasing competition and team selection or cuts. In contrast to engaging in youth sports, youth who exercise provide reasons more closely aligned with adults. Thus, adolescents initiate exercise largely for external factors, including to lose weight, for health benefits, to satisfy other’s expectations (e.g., doctor’s orders), or to decrease stress.
As there are fewer opportunities for adults to reap the many benefits of physical activity through sport involvement, there is a greater emphasis on exercise participation in adulthood. Adults cite health and fitness as important reasons for participation in physical activity. The majority of those who initiate exercise will discontinue in a relatively short amount of time. Those that do continue to exercise do so for more intrinsic reasons, such as enjoyment and developing value and identity for exercise. Competition and comparisons to others generally becomes less important with increasing age across adulthood, while selfreferenced criteria are generally more consistent. Group involvement constitutes a motivating factor to both initiate and continue involvement. Adults who exercise in a group setting report more positive outcomes compared to those exercising alone. However, the majority of adults do not participate in regular exercise, demonstrating the difficulty of sustaining exercise involvement. Adults identify reasons for not exercising that reflect the demands and responsibility inherent in adulthood, including a lack of time, energy, knowledge, and value.
Although the level and intensity of physical activities generally decrease across adulthood, older adults can enjoy many physiological, psychological, and social benefits of being physically active. As physically active persons are less likely to experience cognitive decline and dementia later in life compared with sedentary persons, physical activity serves an added benefit for maintaining or reducing the risk of cognitive decline. Relevant concerns for this population tend to focus on functional movement and quality of life. Older adults’ perceived ability to be active is as important as actual ability when predicting physical activity levels. Key physical activity motivators for older adults include enjoyment, social opportunities, maintaining or enhancing control over activities of daily living, and increasing self-confidence and perceptions of competence. Unfortunately, there are many barriers to participation that largely reflect lack of information and negative perceptions or attitudes toward physical activity for older adults.
Social and Emotional Development
A pervasive and persistent motivator across the lifespan is the social opportunities afforded by participation in sport, exercise, and physical activities. Initiating and maintaining social relationships and social connections constitute a core aspect of motivation and behavior in physical activity pursuits, yet affiliation alters in structure and function across the lifespan.
The role of adults in the sport experience of children has garnered substantial attention. Parents largely direct their children’s activities, exerting the primary social influence in early participation. Factors such as parent involvement, beliefs, and activity patterns are all influential on children’s perceptions and behaviors regarding physical activity. However, other adult leaders like coaches and teachers also constitute important social influences. Important adults help shape the meaning of and understanding of emotions, such as pride, shame, and guilt.
Awareness of and reliance on peers increases through middle childhood and into adolescence. Young children view peers as others to share activities with, while peer group acceptance and belonging become important in middle childhood. Although the role of parents does not necessarily decline, there is a clear emergence of peers as an important source of social influence in middle childhood to early adolescence. Developing in early adolescence, interpersonal intimacy and close friendships are also important and serve an emotional function. This is increasingly important as the ability of emotions to be verbally acknowledged emerges.
Peer relationships, peer pressures, and general attention to one’s social surroundings make adolescence a time of particular sensitivity toward peers. Peers therefore constitute a salient source of information about one’s self (e.g., self-esteem, competence) and in developing attitudes, beliefs, and affective responses to sport and physical activities. Other markers of adolescent development are the formation of identity and of independence. In mid to later adolescence, there is an increased awareness of and development of one’s personal standards and expectations. Though social influences like parents and peers remain important, they are integrated with and accompanied by greater self-reflective ability and more internal judgments that reflect more abstract thoughts.
In the later adolescent years and into adulthood, romantic relationships are developed and constitute a primary social relationship. Unfortunately, there is sparse information about romantic relationships in the sport and exercise literature. As salient social relationships during adulthood, romantic relationships and spouses are an important potential source of influence on sport and exercise experiences, for example serving as sources of social support for exercise. Additionally, their own children become another source of influence for adults. By middle adulthood, social networks become stronger and more stable, aiding in the increased ability to manage emotions and enhanced coping skills to deal with a variety of life changes.
Social relationships change in structure and function in older adulthood. Career, family responsibilities, and social circles decrease, while close relationships and social ties take on increased relevance. Having friends and social opportunities predicts mental health in older adulthood. Sport and exercise provide a venue for social interactions and an opportunity to make and maintain social relationships. As such, the sport and exercise context can provide an important source of social support for this population.
Young children do not differentiate the concepts of ability and effort. Thus, children tend to view self-referenced ways of defining success such as trying hard and task completion as markers for high perceived ability. By adopting this mastery-oriented approach to their activities, children embrace effort and personal improvement as signs of success. However, as children age, they become more able to differentiate the concepts of ability and effort. Whereas previously, trying hard signaled being good at an activity, comparisons against others become more meaningful and trying hard can actually signal less perceived ability than others. By early adolescence, individuals are more fully able to adopt a performance-oriented approach that emphasizes comparisons against others as ways of defining success.
In addition, across youth, participating in sport for intrinsic reasons declines. Children’s enjoyment of sport and physical activity declines, as does the focus on self-regulation. Participation for external reasons (e.g., feeling controlled by others, feeling guilty) increases across childhood and early adolescence. These changes in motivation are linked to both contextual features as well as cognitive development.
Research findings are inconsistent about changes in level of perceived physical competence across childhood and adolescence; however, accuracy of perceived physical competence increases across childhood and early adolescence. Young children tend to rely on important adults for competence information. In early adolescence, social comparisons are also used to form competence perceptions. Adolescents become increasingly able to use internal criteria to judge competence. The incorporation of more sources of information enables a more accurate determination of competence; as a result, perceived competence drops for some with age.
Perceptions of physical appearance are relevant from early adolescence across the lifespan. Early adolescents are keenly attuned to how others perceive them, and self-presentation concerns arise, such as social self-consciousness, sensitivity to early or late physical maturation rates, needs for social acceptance, and in particular body-image concerns. For example, girls cite reasons for not engaging in physical activities that often reflect being self-conscious of how the activity may negatively impact their appearance or social relationships. Self-presentation concerns, including body image, are associated with negative consequences, such as negative attitudes, low self-esteem, and avoidance of physical activity. Body-centered issues tend to persist across the lifespan, taking on different emphases at different life stages. There are changes in physical appearance across the lifespan, and although the importance of appearance tends to decline through adulthood, perceived physical appearance is a consistent predictor of self-esteem across the lifespan.
Youth sport often aims to use a developmental model, treating the child as a whole person to be developed. However, the context of sport changes with age and level and generally shifts toward a more professional model emphasizing competition and outcome. When the motives of children do not match the experiences provided to them, such as when a professional model is applied too early, there can be deleterious effects. As sport becomes more competitive and selective, there are not only changes to the social context but fewer opportunities for participation in organized sport. Because organized sport is a large source of physical activity for kids, as participation in organized sports declines, so do physical activity levels.
Motivational Climate or Coaching Style
Coaches are important influences in the youth sport context, as their philosophies and ways of responding to athletes influence youth athletes’ psychological growth and development in sport. For example, coaches who create a mastery motivational climate provide goals and reinforcement to participants who improve over past performances, try hard, and work together. Coaches using a mastery motivational climate generally have athletes who show greater self-perceptions, more self-determined motivation, and general wellbeing. In contrast, coaches who use a performance motivational climate emphasize comparisons against others; youth in these contexts generally show less self-determined motivation, more anxiety, and lower physical activity.
Coaches who adopt a positive approach to providing feedback emphasize instruction, reinforcement, and encouragement toward their athletes. Utilizing the positive approach in a manner contingent with athletes’ behavior predicts increased enjoyment, self-esteem, liking of coach and teammates, more prosocial attitudes and behaviors, increased likelihood of continued participation, and lower anxiety. The coach clearly provides an important influence on the development of attitudes, perceptions, and behavior during the childhood and adolescent years.
For youth, physical education (PE) is a physical activity context that is distinct from organized sport. Often compulsory in nature, PE includes a wider range of skill levels across youth participants. PE curricula traditionally focus on competitive, sport-based skills rather than on experiences that foster lifetime activities like fitness or recreation. This is problematic for youth who may have lower fitness, physical ability, or slower physical maturity. However, PE can serve as a context from which to develop adaptive beliefs and values that can foster lifelong physical activity habits with the right focus. PE teachers create a leadership structure and set the tone of the environment. Teachers who provide a more supportive, cooperative environment foster more positive experiences within PE that also translate into positive outcomes beyond the PE environment.
Positive Youth Development
Organized sport is a popular activity for children and youth, in part because sport participation is expected to impart character. Sportspersonship, teamwork, leadership, and fair play represent common idealized outcomes of competitive sport participation. However, research has not confirmed these common beliefs. In fact, it appears that increased involvement in competitive sport may come at a price for some. Older athletes are more accepting of cheating than younger athletes, rule violations are more accepted as competitive level increases, and collegiate athletes use more aggression than youth. In addition, beginning around age 12, athletes use lower levels of moral reasoning in sport than in daily life. However, these outcomes only represent average experiences. There are many examples of positive outcomes in sport, but most are predicated on intentional efforts to foster youth development.
Positive youth development (PYD) programs promote personal and social assets of youth to enhance physical and mental health, foster social and psychological well-being, increase academic achievement, and develop character. PYD programs generally emphasize the need to create an engaging, positive context encouraging long-term commitment, positive relationships with caring adult mentors, and opportunities to develop life skills such as social skills and problem-solving skills and to transfer skills to new contexts. Sport and physical activity contexts provide an optimal vehicle for PYD, as they can address physical and mental health and foster social and psychological well-being. Sport-based PYD programs therefore tend to promote more growth and development than do many traditional competitive sport programs that focus on sport-specific skills and competition.
Adult Exercise Settings
Adult exercise settings vary widely. Factors that enhance the exercise experience tend to stem from social and contextual factors. Social support and group cohesion foster positive norms, values, and overall motivation and behavioral adherence. Some exercise facilities cater to the needs of adults in order to minimize barriers to exercise. For example, it is common to provide child care; have extended hours of operation; provide multiple services in one location, such as a spa or restaurant; and offer a wide range of classes. Exercise facilities sometimes target certain groups, such as women only gyms, in an effort to tailor the facility to the unique needs of certain segments of the adult population. Despite these efforts, exercise adherence remains a problem for most adults.
The trends noted earlier suggest that a sport or exercise context that emphasizes mastery, support, and developing assets will produce the most positive outcomes. However, there are certain individuals who will thrive in an environment that does not reflect these ideal conditions. For example, an adolescent who is competent, self-determined, and focused will likely thrive in a highly competitive environment (e.g., elite level competitive sports). Likewise, an adult may prefer to exercise alone despite the expectation that exercising in groups is preferable on average. Though the contextual features described earlier are generally advantageous, there is also a need to adapt contexts to specific individual or developmental needs of participants. While in general there are many changes in psychology-related variables across the lifespan, it is also clear that development needs to be viewed as an interaction between individuals in specific contexts.
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