Children's sports can start out as an enjoyable activity and turn into an overly competitive chore that isn't fun for far too many kids. According to the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, an estimated 5% of the approximately 25 million American children who participate in organized sports drop out because of pressure and overemphasis on competition and winning.

American Academy of Pediatrics Report

Pointing to the increasing pressure and competition involved in children's athletics, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children not be pushed to specialize in one sport, at least until they reach adolescence.

"Kids should be encouraged to be more physically active to get away from too much television and sitting in front of the computer and organized sports can be an excellent way of doing so. However, organized, competitive sports for young children can also have its down side," says Tom Rowland, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, MA, and a member of the AAP's Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness.

In making its recommendation, the AAP cited research showing that young children who participate in a variety of athletic activities and delay specializing in a particular sport until adolescence tend to suffer fewer sports-related injuries, be more consistent performers, and participate in sports for a longer period of time. The AAP says that early specialization can lead to physical and emotional harm that will far outweigh any possible benefit.

Pressure From Parents

In many cases it is actually the parents who are to blame for the increased competition and pressure in children's sports. Indeed, far too many of today's parents fervently preach to their kids the importance of excelling and winning at all costs, in many cases because they're trying to live vicariously through their kids. In other instances, it may be because they're trying to prepare their kids for the adult world, in which there is pressure to succeed.

This undue pressure is stripping children's sports of the lessons and benefits they should be providing, including teamwork, physical conditioning, the exhilaration of athletic competition, and, of course, just plain fun.

What Can You Do?

The experts say there are several steps you can take to ensure that your kids enjoy participating in sports without feeling undue pressure.

Promote Variety
Encourage your kids to participate in various sports and/or athletic activities, rather than specialize in a particular sport, until they've reached adolescence (and then only if such specialization is the child's choice).

Evaluate the Benefits and Potential Harm
Consider a series of questions to help determine whether your children's athletic activities are beneficial or harmful:

  • Is the activity fun?
  • Does my child have friends on the sports team or group?
  • Is my child participating because he or she enjoys doing so?
  • Does my child look forward to going to practice and/or games?
  • Am I pressuring my child to participate in a sport or athletic activity?
  • Am I deriving more enjoyment or fulfillment from my child's athletic activities than my child is?

Here are other tips:

  • While praising your child for and pointing out the benefits of winning, stress the greater importance of the enjoyment that can be derived from simply participating in athletic activities.
  • Applaud your child's good efforts.
  • Ask your child if his or her team won, but only in addition to questions such as "What was the best part of the practice or game? " or "Did you have fun?"
  • Don't pressure your child, but instead offer to help your child practice and improve his or her skills.

Evaluate the Coach and the League
Make certain your child's coach and league (or supervising organization) are creating a safe and enjoyable atmosphere for participation.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the coach putting too much pressure to win on my child and his teammates?
  • In addition to giving proper athletic training, is the coach teaching good sportsmanship and proper and acceptable behavior?
  • Is the coach pushing the children beyond the physical limitations appropriate for their age?

If you discover that a coach or league (or supervising organization) is violating any of the above ground rules and safeguards, speak to the coach or supervising organization about the problem and, if possible, offer to help. If, after doing so, the problem is not rectified, remove your child from the situation and find another team or league.

Show Good Sportsmanship Yourself
In addition to coaches, parents must practice good sportsmanship and acceptable behavior when watching their children participate in sports and athletic activities.