It is obvious that the American society is obsessed with sports. All one needs to do to see this obsession is turn on the television and watch one of the dozens of twenty -four hour sports stations and commercials dedicated to sports. Still not convinced, then hop into your car and take a drive across any suburban American town and look at the parks and playing fields. They are full of adult and children athletes playing for leisure and competition. We, as adults, have made athletics into a billion dollar industry as spectators and participants. Our need for sports fuels our pride and self worth as Americans. However, organized youth sports in the U.S. are still a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to 1954, most organized sports in this country took place through social agencies such as the YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, etc. (Seefelt & Ewing, 1997). Since this time, the benefits provided by these activities have developed into private youth sports organizations primarily run by volunteering adults.
Does our obsession have a purpose? Do organized sports play a positive role in the lives of our children? At first thought, any red blooded American would say absolutely. But can we explain why and in what way organized sports benefit our children? Parents and coaches have alluded to the idea that sports are great for kids for decades, but when this comment is made it seems to be accepted without any question. In the following text we will discuss specific benefits from participation in organized sports including the physical, psychological, and academic impact of sport on children. We will also look at the research to see the concrete proof that organized sports play a vital role in the development of the youth of this country.
The most alarming issue facing the health of our country and specifically our children is the epidemic of childhood obesity. The infrastructure of our nation’s health care system will be tested as we see the first wave of obese children reach adulthood and deal with the related health issues. The scary facts are that the lifestyle and diet we promote is trickling down to the children of this country. Health issues that are linked to adult obesity are now becoming more and more common in children and teens. For example, type II diabetes was once considered adult on-set diabetes, but today the cases of children with type II diabetes is raising at an alarming rate. The estimated yearly cost of obesity in this country is estimated at around 61 billion dollars. With these issues facing the children of this country we need a cure right? Well a portion of that cure is located in organized sports. The solution is simple to stopping the trend of childhood obesity; eat less and be more active. Today children in this country are far less active than prior generations. Through childhood activity, we are not only saving our children from a life of obesity as adults but we are also potentially saving this country billions of dollars in missed days of work, dollars spent on health care, and rising disability rates. (Healthierchildren.org). In 1997, the CDC stated within its “Guidelines for Schools and Communities for Promoting Lifelong Physical Activity” that youth sports can promote positive behavior that can last a lifetime (Seefelt & Ewing, 1997).
Much debate has been discussed in the general public about the frequency and duration it takes for a child athlete to receive benefits from physical activity. Boys and girls who participate in just two 50 minute training sessions per week improved their aerobic capacity by 15% in just six months (Eppright, Sanfacon, Beck & Bradley, 1996).
How young is too young for involvement in organized sports? Children under the age of 5 are more than likely to receive from organized sports the simplest of benefits. For example, children at this age seem to enjoy the advancement in motor skills and interaction and not the competitive aspect of the activity (Eppright, Sanfacon, Beck & Bradley, 1996). A study in Singapore showed that even preschoolers could benefit from involvement in organized sports. This study showed that preschoolers who participated in organized sports where stronger physically, socially, and emotionally developed than peers who were not evolved in organized sports at the preschool level (Nonis, 2004). As with adults over training is a serious issue. A 1980 study detailed the risks of over training with child athletes. There is points in training were growth actually may be retarded (McKeag, 1980). This extreme should not scare parents from allowing there children to participate in a appropriate level of physical activity.
We live in a competitive world and as a culture it is our duty to prepare children for the competition. The benefits of organized sports reach farther than the playing fields and hardwood floors of our schools. Organized sport has the potential to also help our children in the realm of academia. Sports help us to prepare for a life filled with stiff competition. Organized athletics teach children to respect authority and to develop time management skills outside the classroom; to be able to balance the responsibilities of being a student and an athlete. The typical stereo-type of the “dumb athlete” couldn’t be any farther from the actual truth. Current research actually points to a relationship between organized athletics and higher academics.
The lessons learned outside the classroom transfer directly into relationships with teachers and peers in an educational environment. The research points to a direct correlation between organized sports and higher development rates in academics. Athletics teach our children to master skills and to focus on the development of virtue over the outcome (Durrant, 2007)). This is a concept that parents and coaches since the dawn of sports have stressed. Organized sports teach life lessons of discipline, hard work, dedication, and how to push through adversity. But the stereotype of the “dumb jock” has also haunted organized sport as well. The truth is that students who participate in extra curricular activities including organized sports tend to be more academically equipped (Fredricks & Eccles, 2006). It must be noted that students who participate in multiple extracurricular activities including those outside of organized sport seem to benefit the most academically.
The average person knows that there is a positive feeling of self that comes from physical activity and exercise. From a physiological stand point we could say that this is caused by the body producing natural endorphins that just make us feel good for a short period of time following exercise. But the truth is through organized sport we build a sense of self worth, and accomplishment not present in exercise and physical activity alone. These positive feelings we feel following participation in organized sport are the direct result of putting hard work in and seeing the outcome for the whole group not just the individual. The truth is that sports give children an opportunity to develop self concept and how to express themselves within a group. It seems that this is a natural need that even children who do not participate in organized sports have. For example, children in early elementary school are seen looking for situations to act out their competitive nature; competition becomes an independent social motive. Organized sports give these children an outlet for this natural behavior (Eppright, Sanfacon, Beck & Bradely, 1996)
As health professionals, it is our job to promote behavior that will increase quality of life and educate Americans on the risk taken in certain behaviors, yet in this country today our children are living lives of risk. Our children are putting themselves at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse, adult obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc. Extracurricular activities including organized sports have a direct impact on decreasing risky behavior by children. This can mainly be explained due to the type of peers a child associates with on a regular basis. If a child participates in extracurricular activities his or her choice of friends is likely to be from the pool of children that participate in the given extracurricular activity. Peers who are involved in extracurricular activities tend to be more academically conscience and less likely to live lifestyles promoting risky behavior (Fredricks & Eccles, 2006). If a child is surrounding them selves with responsible peers risky behavior is likely being decreased.
In American society today it seems antisocial behavior is accepted, we claim that it’s just a phase or that it’s alright to just be who we are. While both of these may be true, a healthy person is a pro-social person who can function in main stream society. So what role can organized sport play in creating positive pro-social behaviors in children? Children who have been involved in organized sport tend to be more pro-social than their counterparts who have not been exposed to organized sport at an early age. Sports have been used with some success with improving adults and children with antisocial issues, but no clear evidence has shown sports as an effective treatment for antisocial behavior issues (Duncan, 2004). Organized sports may not have a place in treatment of children with antisocial issues but it is clear that children who have been exposed to sports at an early age are less likely to have antisocial disorders. Organized sports participation has been proven to lower scores in the areas of externalizing problems, social problems, aggression problems, and delinquency problems (Donaldson & Ronan, 2006).
The number one psychological issue in the life of a child or young adult is the idea of self worth or self concept. The easiest way to define self concept is how do I feel about myself? What kind of self worth do I have? Various researchers have pointed to self concept as the variable with the most potential to reflect the most positive psychological gains (Sonstroem & Morgan, 1988). Researchers have found a positive relationship between organized or formal sports and a positive concept of self (Donaldson & Ronan, 2006). The strength of self concept is built through the knowledge that I, as a person on my own, can finish what I start. I, as a person, can put my mind to a given task and perform that task with the skill I have learned through hard work. And most of all, I can contribute to the group giving us overall success.
The large focus of research in the health and sport community has focused on the benefits of organized sport, but can children receive the same social benefits from relatively unorganized sports activities? The answer to this question seems to be that children do not benefit from the same life skills that come from organized sports. Organized sports do create an environment where we learn to exist within the team concept. The world of organized sport appeals to young people who are drawn to the team concept and have a positive view of authority and the group concept. However, the earlier children are involved in organized athletics the more likely they are to be attracted to these sports as a adolescent (Donaldson & Ronon, 2007).
Many have witnessed the out of control parent at a little league game or a child who participates in too many activities and gives up a sport at a later age. These are examples of the negative impact of youth sports. The negative impact of youth sports is a real and valid concern. The psychological benefits of youth sports are just as great for the child who grows up to have nothing to do with competitive athletics (McKeag, 1980).
The proof is in the research, organized sports provide positive benefits. Physically, children who participate in organized sport are less likely to develop asthma and diabetes as adults. Academically, children who participate in organized sports are more likely to excel in the classroom. Socially, children who participate in organized sport are less likely to suffer from depression and less likely to participate in antisocial high risk behavior. With all the positives involved, why do we see so many states and individual school districts cutting funds and opportunities for children to participate in organized childhood sports? It is vital that we fight to not only keep childhood sports a priority in our primary schools but also expand those programs. As parents we must take it on ourselves to give our children every chance to benefit from organized youth sports, even if it means taking time out of our own busy schedules to volunteer. As Americans we cannot afford to see a day when organized sports are limited to only those families who can afford to pay for their children to participate in them. In order for organized sport to become a priority in this country, we as health professionals must educate the public on the positives and how they translate to the long term financial and social benefits for our country.
Donaldson, S., & Ronan,K. (2006 Summer). The Effecs of Sports Participation on Young Adolescents’ Emotional Well-being. Adolescence, 41(162), 369-389.
Duncan, S., Duncan, T., Strycker, L., & Chaumeton, N. (March 3, 2002). Relations Beween Youth Antisocial and Prosocial Activites, Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 25 (5) 425-438.
Durant, S. (2007 Summer). Raising Successful and Emotionally Healthy Children in a Competitive World. Independent School, 66(4), 116-116.
Eppright, T., Sanfacon, J., Beck, N., & Bradley, J. (December 23, 1996). Sports Psychiatry in Childhood and Adolescence: An Overview, Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 28(2), 71-86.
McKeag, D. (1980). Sports and the Young Athlete: A Family Practice Perspective, Sports and the Young Athlete, 3-16.
Nonis, K. (November 2005). Kindergarten Teachers’ View About the Importance of Preschoolers’ Partcipation in Sports in Singapore. Early Child Development and Care, 175(7-8), 719-742.
Seefeldt, V., & Ewing, M., (September 1997). Youth Sports in America, President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research Digest, 2(11), 2-14.