Allowing Youth Sports to be Child's Play

Why Do Kids Play Sports?

The picture of youth sports today is far different from that of the early 20th century. Physical activity in the form of “free play” was a more common daily occurrence for most children then. This unstructured and spontaneous form of activity improved motor skills while developing creativity and encouraging interaction with others.

Today, the child-organized games in the neighborhood that many of us remember have given way to adult-organized youth sports. The experience that a young athlete has with a sport can be positive or negative depending on the focus of the league and the goals set by parents and coaches.

Studies have been conducted to determine why children play sports, why parents enroll their children in organized sports, and why people choose to coach. The most common reasons that children initially choose to play sports are to have fun, learn new skills, and make new friends. Parents, often times, look to sports to challenge their children, engage them in competition, and set winning as the goal. Large discrepancies between a child and parent’s interest in sports can potentially have negative psychological effects on the child, or lead to physical injury.

Coaches can also have a significant impact on the youth sports experience, whether positive or negative. People who volunteer to coach should enjoy and relate to children, know the sport and teach it well, and keep child-focused goals. This will create a positive experience for the children. On the other hand, those people who coach to prove themselves, for power, or to experience success through the success of their team can create a negative experience with lasting effects on children.

Psychological Stress

The value of sports and the physical, psychological, and emotional benefits to children are undisputed. However, when the expectations of adults become too high and they over control young athletes, the pressure to win is overemphasized, and many of the benefits of sports are negated.

Experts have identified two factors responsible for determining whether youth sports are enjoyable or anxiety-filled for young participants. The first is the quality of adult supervision and coaching. The second is the amount of pressure parents place on their children to perform. When parental pressure becomes too great young athletes may experience headaches, muscle pains, stomach aches, sleep disturbances, fatigue, or depression.

Physical Stress/Injury

It has been documented that physical activity is necessary for normal growth in children. However, when the activity level becomes too intense, or excessive, in too short a time period tissue breakdown and injury can occur. Overuse types of injuries were frequently seen in adult recreational athletes in the past. Overuse injuries such as stress fractures, tendonitis, bursitis, apophysitis, and osteochondral injuries of the joint surface were rarely seen when children spent more time engaging in free play. The changing picture of youth sports to intense, repetitive and specialized training at much younger ages is probably the single biggest factor contributing to the dramatic increase in the number of overuse injuries in young athletes.


Most children experience a natural desire to be active beginning in the preschool years. It is a means by which they can develop basic motor skills and gain confidence by mastering these skills, while having fun with their friends. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that team sports should be avoided until age six, encouraging free play until then.

There is currently no consensus on the appropriate age for sport specialization. Some experts believe specialization may begin as early as age ten, while others advocate for puberty as the minimum age for focusing on one sport. All agree, however, that too much, too soon, at too great of an intensity level can lead to injury.

Participation in sports should be a positive experience for kids. Playing sports can help develop such characteristics as confidence, self-esteem, leadership, respect, independence, assertiveness, and conflict resolution, to name a few. Parents and coaches need to be positive role models who support the efforts of these young athletes and keep the “competition” in perspective.

Nationwide Children’s Hospital Sports Medicine specializes in diagnosing and treating sports-related injuries in youth, adolescent, and collegiate athletes. Services are available in multiple locations throughout central Ohio. To make an appointment, call 614-355-6000 or request an appointment online.

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