The benefits of participating in sports for youth are indisputable. Sport participation helps children and adolescents develop physically, mentally, and socially (3). Engaging youth in physical activities contributes to the development of long-term healthy lifestyles, which is particularly important in light of our society’s growing problem of obesity (1,5,7). So why have today’s youth become our least active generation? Some people point to the rise of television, computers, and video games. Others point to the lack of safe places to play. Still others cite cuts in physical education programs in schools as the primary cause. Most likely, the cause of this decline in activity level in our youth is multifactorial.
I suspect that one of the reasons for the decline of youth participation in sports is the shift of an emphasis from “fun” to “winning.” When asked which is more important — “winning” or “having fun,” an adult often will say “winning,” whereas a youth is more likely to say “fun” (3,11,12). Note that children do not define “having fun” as goofing around at practice. Instead, they self-define “fun” as being part of a team, experiencing success, and having an encouraging coach (13). In addition to the “fun” factor, youth identify learning and developing new skills as reasons that they want to stay involved in sports (2,4). Given these facts, it is not surprising that most young athletes would rather have a high level of participation on a losing team, rather than a bench-warming role on a winning team (8).
If young people value having fun, learning, and playing the game more than winning the game, why has participation in sports declined with time? Why does this shift in relative importance of values occur? I believe it is again because, in part, of the increased emphasis that today’s society has placed on winning. This shift in societal attitudes is illustrated by several well-known quotes from famous sport figures. In the early 20th century, Pierre de Frédy, the Baron de Coubertin and the founder of the modern Olympic games, stated that “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” He adopted the following informal motto for the Olympics: “The most important thing is not to win but to take part.” Today, it seems that the philosophy of most teams is best summed up by the UCLA Bruins football coach, Henry Russell (“Red”) Sanders, who in 1950, said “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” As adults, many of us are likely guilty of both actively and passively transmitting the importance that we place on winning to our children.
When you look around your local youth sport community, how many pure recreational leagues do you see? Many communities have very few. The teams in which everyone can join and play regularly have been replaced by “select teams,” “traveling teams,” and other teams that do not welcome all comers onto their playing field. The media constantly trumpet the stories of children specializing in and excelling at sports at very young ages and make celebrities out of those who are recruited at increasingly younger ages.
Most sports medicine clinicians have seen some of the results of this push toward early specialization. We sense that we’re seeing increasingly younger athletes with overuse injuries. Data are starting to show that this “gut feeling” of ours is real. A recent study on young baseball pitchers has shown increasing numbers of younger and younger players undergo ulnar collateral ligament reconstructions (9). Another study has shown an increase in the frequency of serious knee injuries in children of 400% in the last decade; especially concerning was the out-of-proportion increase in the 5- to 12-year age group (10).
I have seen many a child, and am sure that you have as well, who is burned out and really wants to drop out of a sport but feels obligated to continue because of parental pressures. Often these are the young athletes who develop a series of never-ending injuries. We joke about how some parents are vicariously living out their dreams through their children, but most of us also see parents of children who are unwilling to let their children step away from the sports in which the family has “invested” so much time and money either to make their children elite athletes or to help them earn college scholarships.
Whereas some of these childhood protegees do go on to become collegiate or professional athletes, the harsh reality is that most do not. Most parents do not have realistic expectations and are not familiar with the data, which show the relatively small chance of a child playing in college (approximately 5.3%, with even fewer playing supported by scholarships) and in high-level professional sports (approximately 0.05%) (6). Of course, even knowing the odds, most parents believe that their child is special and will beat the odds.
As health care and health/fitness professionals, one of our duties is to encourage clients and patients to live healthful lifestyles, and the development of the habit of regular participation in physical activities is an important component step toward that goal. Encouraging regular exercise in our children is an important part of this. If the young athlete finds playing sports fun rather than a stressful chore, the likelihood of he or she continuing to participate increases exponentially. Therefore, it is important to continually deliver the message that having fun is more important than winning in sports. How can we do this? One way is to make it clear what is important to us.
I learned a valuable tip from Dr. John Lombardo at the 2001 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine’s Annual Meeting in San Antonio. He asked the parents among us “What is the first thing you ask your children when they come through the door after a game?” was it “Did you win?” or was it “Did you have fun?” When a child is asked “Did you win?” they will learn that “winning” is your most important value. If they are asked “Did you have fun?” they will learn that “having fun” is more important (and will probably tell you if they won as part of the subsequent conversation). Since Dr. Lombardo’s comments, I have always included this advice as a routine part of my well child check discussions with parents and children, and I have taught this to my residents as well. Hopefully, if more health care and health/fitness professionals remember to emphasize the importance of fun in sports, we will have less dropouts and more lifelong participants.
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