youth sports

The Psychology of Youth Sports: What We Continue To Get Wrong

Participating in sports offers our kids so many benefits: physical activity, teamwork, working toward goals, socialization, fun, and more. Unfortunately, there are some aspects of youth sports that are harmful and detract from the multiple benefits. Here are five observations (as an ex-athlete, a graduate of a master’s program in sport psychology/clinical psychologist, and a parent, now on the sidelines) of some of that harm.

1. Invalidation of pain/injury: When a child complains of physical or mental pain, believe them. Too often, I hear parents and coaches yelling, “You’re okay” or worse, “Are you bleeding? Is it broken? No? Then you’re okay.” Instead of telling them they’re okay, ask if they are. In fact, make sure they are before they resume playing to show compassion, build trust, and prevent further injury. Children who swallow physical and emotional pain can become adults with all kinds of somatic issues. Those who aren’t allowed to show their emotions will bottle them up, but they’ll surface later in the form of mood or anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and other forms of mental illness. Is this really what we want? In  youth sports, it’s possible to encourage physical and mental toughness without compromising on compassion, validation, and other aspects of humanity.

2. Positioning exercise as punishment: Physical conditioning is, of course, an important part of youth sports. In order to succeed, athletes must be fast or strong or both. Thus, it makes sense that coaches stress drills that increase cardiovascular endurance and physical strength and endurance. What doesn’t make sense is when they punish kids (e.g., for certain behaviors, for not hitting certain marks during practice) with exercise, such as running drills or push-ups. Unfortunately, this causes the child to associate conditioning with something negative, as something to be feared or avoided, rather that as something that can enhance their game. Instead of using exercise as punishment, coaches could benefit from choosing more natural or logical consequences. If you were goofing off with your teammate and you missed your turn, then you missed that opportunity to improve. If you were talking during instruction, then you won’t know how to do the next skill. There’s no reason to introduce push-ups in these cases, unless you want to initiate a potentially lifelong negative association to this exercise. Let the punishment fit the crime.

3. Pitting teammates against one another: One thing I’ve observed in a lot at youth sports practices is coaches pitting teammates against one another. For example, if one kid doesn’t run a distance in a certain time, the entire team has to run the distance again. Or, if one a kid misses a free throw, all the kids take a lap (a combination of problems 2 and 3). This is NOT the way to build camaraderie amongst teammates. In fact, it fosters anger and resentment. Instead, find ways for young athletes to support and encourage one another. Especially in team sports, but really in any sport, we want to be enhancing teamwork and cooperation so that kids can reap the full socio-emotional benefits of their participation.

4. Yelling at kids and justifying this by saying you do so because you care: I’ve actually heard this one from coaches multiple times. At a team huddle following practice one day, the director of one basketball league declared: “I yell because I care about you.” Why are we teaching our kids that caring means we yell? What a horrible message to convey. . . The reality is, coaches yell because they don’t know how not to yell, because they haven’t figured out how to regulate frustration and disappointment or how to communicate these feelings in an effective way. Stop promoting it as caring and stop confusing kids about what caring and supportive relationships actually look like. Coaches who struggle with yelling would benefit from learning DBT to improve their emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness skills.

5. Letting parents coach/act out: And finally, speaking of yelling, let’s talk about the parents in youth sports. Parents are, in many cases, out of control. They model and encourage aggressive behavior. I’ve witnessed parents be emotionally and verbally abusive toward their children. . . multiple times. And it doesn’t stop there, parents are quick to berate the coaches, the referees/umpires, and each other.

We have a local league, a franchise, well aware of this fact, that created a pledge that parents must sign before enrolling their kids in their program. The i9 Sports® Parental Pledge:
“I, the parent or guardian of an i9 Sports team player, agree that the most important outcome of any game is for my child to have fun. My child needs my approval and support, regardless of what happens in the game. I will refrain from the use of negative or derogatory language aimed at the Officials, the Coaches, my child, or other players. I will encourage my child and all others in the game and will let the coach be the coach. I will do my best to model the sportsmanship-like behavior I wish my child to adopt, and to support the coach in making this the best possible experience for my child.”
I love this pledge. How wonderful it would be if all parents could commit to the same. If youth sport directors across the board required similar pledges, they could set the stage for greater sportsmanship and, ultimately, a more positive experience for everyone involved.


The bottom line: We should be building our kids up, not tearing them down. To do so, it’s important to prioritize their mental and physical health above the win. This is true of all athletes and especially true for the younger set. In youth sports, if we approach child athletes as full humans, with caring and compassion, as much as we try to improve their skills and performance, and if we prioritize sportsmanship, teamwork, and connection, we’re likely to see a positive ripple effect in their lives for years to come.

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