Jury is out on impact of organized sports

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 3, 2004

Participation in organized youth sports offers children the chance to see and experience some of the best, and worst, that life has to offer.

In virtually every matchup, there are winners and losers, great plays and errors, super attitudes and blooming egos.

Without a doubt, organized athletics can have a tremendous impact on the developing players who hit fields or take to the courts, and that impact on each can be as diverse as each individual.

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University of Alabama kinesiology professor Matthew Curtner-Smith believes there’s no easy way to define sport’s impact on children.

“There’s no one answer,” he said. “Psychological impact – the so-called character building – depends on the context the kids are in and on the coach and the kinds of things they can do. It can be good or bad.”

Curtner-Smith, and Englishman and father of two athletic girls, has a unique perspective on youth sports.

He teaches coaches how to coach, is a former coach himself and makes sure he provides his girls, ages 10 and 8 the opportunity to play.

“You can teach kids good social skills or bad ones. If you teach the right way, they learn teamwork and perseverance. If it’s taught badly, they learn to cheat, lie and steal,” he said.

“I’ve spent my whole career teaching and coaching, and there’s nothing magical about sports. It’s a wonderful thing if people do it properly,” he said.

Doing it properly is what Curtner-Smith stresses to his students. Everything from positive reinforcement skills to age-appropriate equipment and rules blends into a successful program for young athletes.

“My advice to parents is to talk to the coach, find out what their philosophy is and what they know about the sport,” he said. “If they’re sensible, enroll them. If they’re crazy, don’t.”

Once that hurdle is cleared, Curtner-Smith said appropriateness is another key element.

“If they’re going to learn it has to be through developmentally appropriate game forms,” he said.

“Developmentally appropriate game forms” include modified rules, equipment and fields for younger players.

“It’s so much better to make the game simpler and modify the equipment,” he said.

He, like others in his field, offers a checklist of items parents can look to for guidance. Included in that list are the concepts of fairness, simplicity and education.

“Focus on the process – doing the skills and enjoy playing rather than focusing on the product, winning or losing,” he said.

Curtner-Smith isn’t alone in that theory. Research studies conducted by a number of groups including the National Alliance for Youth Sports and the Institute for Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University indicate children play sports for the pleasure of the game.

“Numerous research studies completed in the last 20 years have asked youth sports participants why they decided to participate in organized sports,” said Dr. Richard Stratton, a health and physical education specialists at the Virginia Tech.

“…Children expect to have fun, learn skills, develop fitness and participate because they enjoy competition.”

One UCLA Sports Laboratory study indicates children stay involved in youth sports primarily due to positive coach support

Still another body of research shows that a “Fun is Number One” attitude is a major factor for young players.

“Fun is the major motivator for kids in sports. In survey after survey, whenever youngsters are asked why the play sports, the number one reason is always the same – to have fun. Winning is on the list, but it is last on the list. Kids like to compete, but it’s the fun of competing, the excitement of competing, not just the winning,” said Dr. Darrell J. Burnett, a national recognized clinical and sports psychologist affiliated with the American Youth Sports Organization.

“Research shows that kids learn better when they’re having fun,” he said.

That may be where adults may be muddying the waters, according to Curtner-Smith.

A trip to the sandlot can provide a stark comparison between adult-organized sports and the games kids play on their own.

“When kids play by themselves, they make all the decisions and they get to do the thinking. In organized sports, kids don’t get to think at all and the adults make all the rules,” he said.

“Here’s another fact: In sports kids organize themselves, the games are close because they fix them to be fair,” he said. “The kids focus on the process on their own while adults focus on the product.”

Winning isn’t everything for most young players. It’s not the score, Curtner-Smith said, that kids remember from the sandlot, but the fact that it was “a good game.”

Curtner-Smith has had to practice what he preaches when it comes to making the transition from educator and coach to parent.

“I desperately want my little girls to have great experiences, so I practice what I preach. I have a look at the ‘teachers’ and what they’re doing (with the players),” he said.

Then he looks at the overall situation.

“I’ve been disgusted by church league – all the questioning of officials,” he said.

“My little girl came in one day from a game and told her mother ‘I think I scored a touchdown’ – the kids are running around oblivious to (skills and rules), but the kids see adults arguing and think it’s the way to behave,” he said.

“I believe passionately in teaching kids that any activity is a good thing to do,” he said. “But if it’s bad, then (parents should) get them out.”

“People believe sports are tremendously good for their kids’ health and believe it teachers all good character traits, and it can, but there’s no research that say those traits transfer into other walks of life,” he added.

Youth Sports Tips for Parents from Curtner-Smith

Look at the coach and see if the coach minimizes failure or exaggerates it.

Is the coach postiviely reinforcing the kids for doing good?

For younger players, no score keeping or competition.

Is there an attempt to educate parents?

Are the leagues age and developmentally appropriate?

Are the teams fair?

Is there some form of coach education offered by the league?

Is the focus on the process of the game – the skills and enjoyment rather than winning or losing?

Is there zero tolerance for bad behavior from the players, coaches and spectators?

Youth Sports Coach Behavior Checklist from Dr. Darrell J. Burnett

I praise kids just for participating.

I look for positives, and make a big deal out of them.

I stay calm when my kids make mistakes, helping them learn from their mistakes.

I have reasonable and realistic expectations.

I treat my kids with respect, avoiding put-downs, sarcasm and ridicule.

I remind my kids not to get down on themselves.

I remember not to take myself too seriously during the game.

I maintain a Fun is #1 attitude, with lots of laughter and a sense of humor.

I emphasize teamwork, and help my kids thing “we” instead of “me.”

I am a role model of good sportsmanship: winning without gloating, losing without complaining and treating opponents and officials with fairness, generosity and courtesy.