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Dark Side of Youth Sports

Six Major Problem Areas

Rose-colored glasses

There is a strong tendency in our society to view participation in sports in the most favorable light. Children are encouraged to participate in organized youth sports programs because they are thought to promote such fundamental values as character, teamwork, determination and commitment.

But this bias can be troublesome if it prevents us from seeing that problems in youth sports exist. While we have recently come to realize that some professional athletes have serious problems - drug and alcohol abuse, spousal violence, and acts of sexual aggression - we have been much slower to recognize the problems that have developed in youth sports.

Six problem areas

As I see it, there are six major problem areas that we need to address:


1. Out-of-control parents

Every parent who has been on the sidelines has seen instances of emotional abuse that are too common in the world of youth sports: the mortified child whose mother is screaming at the referee about a "blown call", or the despondent child who is being verbally attacked by his or her parent or coach for some perceived lack of effort or for making a "dumb" mistake

It has become fashionable to blame "pushy parents" for many of the excesses seen in children's sports.

I think that this is a mistake.

Why do, time and again, well-meaning parents begin to act out of character as they get caught up in the emotional roller coaster of their child's competitive situation?

In my view, it is because, for parents, the youth sports experience:

  • Is seductive: It isn't that bad parents make the youth sports experience a bad one. It is that the strong emotions aroused by seeing their child locked in a competitive struggle with others lures parents into acting in ways that end up hurting their children, or their relationship with their children. The seductiveness of the youth sports experience draws those involved into a tangle of emotions.
  • Provides an ego trip: There is a great deal of narcissistic appeal in sports competition. Parents who fall into this trap begin to act impulsively, letting their emotions get the better of them, and are often viewed by others as acting like children rather than adults. 
  • Exceeds some parents' ability to cope. Parents who lack the skills to cope with the powerful emotions of ego gratification triggered in them by watching their child compete are those most strongly affected by participation in youth sports programs. They are the individuals who come to be viewed by others as out of control but who believe that they are doing what is best for their child.

The question is often asked, is competition bad for children? We should also ask be asking, "Is being a parent of a competitive youth sports participant bad for parents?" Sometimes, a child isn't old enough for a parent to handle the stress of competition

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