Developmental Considerations

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.

Developmental Trends

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.

Older Adulthood

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.

Motivational Orientations

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.

Contextual Factors

Youth Sports

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.

Physical Education

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.

Person–Context Interactions

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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