3 Signs of a Healthy Youth Sports Environment

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We know the positive benefits that come from sport participation, the development of an active and healthy lifestyle being the most important and long-lasting. Unfortunately, many adults involved in youth sports — both parents and coaches — can become singularly focused on one aspect of sport for their children.

Many become consumed with the idea of developing superstar athletes, often to the detriment of any enjoyment of sport, or find themselves fearful that a balanced approach may negatively affect their child, ruining any chance of success because of missed opportunities.

Some parents struggle to find a healthy place for their child to develop those positive skills of leadership, cooperation and rebounding from failure that we know sports can teach. Here are some signs of a healthy youth sports culture:

Team attitude. Look for the team that emphasizes how participants play more than a “winning is all” philosophy. Some teams push sportsmanship, team goals and even true skill development to the background. These can be the teams where maybe only the “best” youth are played, despite work ethic or level of engagement of the others. Some teams with this emphasis may also fail to teach skills correctly, which can contribute to early injuries, particularly with young children still developing gross and fine motor skills. Research indicates that for young children in particular, motivation and opportunity to practice plays a larger role than ability and talent. Find teams that are motivating and teach the game, including best practices and sportsmanship.

Open communication. Particularly with young children just beginning their sports interaction, there should be an opportunity to ask questions — for the youth as well as parents. Coaches who are transparent about their coaching style and expectations, listen, and encourage communication from parents typically create relatively healthy sports environments. Communication also includes teaching and developing healthy ways of managing conflict.

Early specialization is not forced. Some leagues encourage early specialization, where young people begin playing year-round as early as 7 or 8.  Research suggests that those who specialize early run the risk of injury and burnout at a higher level than those who specialize later. Healthy sporting environments will be aware of this.

Youth sports participation is an experience with tremendous value, but in an unhealthy environment it can have the opposite impact. These are some things to look out for — and if you can’t find them, maybe you can help create them.

Nyaka NiiLampti is a psychologist at Southeast Psych and teaches at Queens University.