Over the past several years, I have been receiving phone calls from parents of younger athletes regarding their child’s sports participation. And, I have started to see younger and younger clients in my office. Over the past two years, I have seen a number of 9 year old athletes and their parents. Both boys and girls have been seeing me with their parents to discuss a wide variety of issues related to their sports involvement. Perhaps the most common topics presented have had a strong relationship to anxiety, expectations of others and self-confidence issues. Many of these young athletes have displayed signs of burnout and mental fatigue, at ages 9 and 10. This past week I saw a 9 year old baseball player who played over 90 games this past summer in a competitive traveling league. His presenting problem was that he would get extremely frustrated when he made an out and would often either emotionally break down or have anger outbursts in the dugout. I have also seen a number of gymnasts age 10 and younger, who have had a wide variety of fear issues related to failing and disappointing their coaches and parents.
Why am I seeing so many younger athletes? I believe it is because as a society, there is more and more pressure to start young children in competitive sports at younger and younger ages. I have written numerous times about how I rarely see a group of children playing by themselves when I drive by an elementary school after school or during the weekend. They are almost always at an organized sport practice with adults either coaching them or present in a supervisory role. Next month I will be turning 60 years old. I can remember very vividly growing up and playing baseball, basketball or football after school in the neighborhood or at my elementary school with my friends. We didn’t have adults present nor were we at an organized practice. We were just playing and having fun. Obviously, today’s society presents a number of safety issues that weren’t prevalent when I was in elementary school. However, there is an increasing pressure to start children at younger ages in sports and organized leagues and to have them specialize in sports before age 10.
Along with this increased participation at younger ages comes more and more pressure to win, come in first place and beat everyone else. This pressure is coming from parents, coaches and sports leagues. It is also coming from media. Sports stories about young athletes are frequently being broadcast not just on ESPN or FOX television, but on the internet and on radio shows. As we know, sports has become a huge business all over the world. Many parents see youth sports participation as a ticket to a college scholarship, a spot on an Olympic team or a professional contract. No matter how slim those chances are, many unrealistically believe it will happen to their child.
So at what age should the score of a game matter? For many, it is now starting to occur at ages 5 and 6. Parents and coaches talk about winning championships when kids sign up for teams. I have heard many stories about coaches blaming kids when their team loses, claiming that it was their fault that they lost the game because they struck out or missed a shot. In my opinion, this can be devastating for these young people. It can lead to a loss or destruction of their self-confidence that can stay with them most of their life.
I have been fortunate throughout my 33 years working as a sport psychologist to have worked with athletes at all levels of competition. And the one key component I have noticed from the athletes who have made it to the pros and the Olympic level, is that most of them didn’t get serious about their sport until their teenage years. Most began playing before age 10, but most said they just played for fun and many of them had no idea that they would make it as a professional or an Olympian. What I have found is that most people are aware of the score of the game, or the time they get in the race, but when their coach or parent makes a big deal of it, it becomes a bigger deal for them. If the coach or parent focuses more on their effort or discusses how much fun they had participating, I have found that these athletes typically have a higher level of self confidence and usually end up participating at older ages. If the score of the game is emphasized too much for younger athletes, usually under ages 10 to 12, I have found that these athletes typically want to quit before ages 13-14. Most have lost interest, are physically and emotionally fatigued and will have lower levels of self confidence than the athletes who didn’t really care as much about the score of the game and were more interested in enjoying the experience. Obviously, there are a wide variety of opinions about this issue, but I believe before ages 12-13, the more we emphasize development, learning skills and having fun, the greater chance your child will keep playing as a teenager. And, the more we focus on the score of the game or how your child was beaten by others in the race, the greater the chance they will want to quit before their teenage years. As always, your thoughts….