In general, sports can be AWESOME for kids — especially young girls. I know for myself (and Kristen!), being active in athletics when we were younger gave us confidence, built inner and outer strength, and helped us to form friendships and support networks that existed far off the courts we were playing on.
But — there is a darker side to some sports. A side that puts too much pressure on winning and/or maintaining a certain body weight or shape. Sometimes, there’s a focus on both of those things — which is a toxic and scary combination, especially when you’re young.
We recently had the chance to ask Melissa Streno, Psy.D., CMPC, Primary Therapist at EDCare, and a member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology — the leading association for sport psychology professionals — about this issue, and she shared her thoughts on how we can all help the younger generation develop a healthy self-image, no matter what sports they play.
What are some of the positive mental benefits of sports and competition for kids?
Sport and competition for kids can be an incredible avenue for intrapersonal growth, and a way to build connection with others. It offers the opportunity to initiate and develop long-lasting friendships with other kids from diverse backgrounds and various life experiences. Being part of a team teaches sense of community, relationship-building, camaraderie, and leadership skills. This is true for individual sports as well because of the opportunity to train, interact, and compete with others.
Participation in sport fosters a sense of responsibility and commitment from a young age, and also instills resiliency and problem-solving when there is a setback or unexpected turn of events. Many of the tools and skills used to manage or improve sport performance are transferable and applicable to other realms of life such as academics, relationships, and family. Sport can be a wonderful outlet away from the stress and pressures of our daily routines, which at times, helps keep life in perspective.
The experiences intertwined with sport teach us to value what our bodies allow us to do, despite society’s critique and encouragement to look a particular way in order to be successful. Consequently, participation in sport can teach us to trust our mind and body, which also influences our level of self-worth.
What are some of the possible negative effects of sports and competitions for kids?
There is always a flip side, and some of the positive aspects of sport just described above can also present distressing and concerning outcomes. There can be detrimental effects when it comes to the pressure and expectations reflected by society, coaches, teammates, parents, etc., unfortunately starting at quite an early age. The significance placed upon performance outcome has become more pervasive as competition has increased and the drive to succeed carries a lot more weight when there is the potential prospect to play for a higher-level club or team, or earn a scholarship. It’s almost as if the bar is never high enough, which can make this experience for a kid feel like a constant uphill battle rather than playing for fun with their friends.
This phenomenon is not just about performance either, but also an athlete’s body type, often framed differently depending on sport type or even position. Again, expectations filter down to how one should fuel their body. Not all recommendations are healthy, or even safe for that matter.
Finally, specialization — which refers to concentrating solely on one sport from an early age — can lead to overtraining, burnout, or in some circumstances, an overuse injury. Luckily, this is not the case for everyone!
What signs should parents (or caregivers) be aware of? How might they know that the sports are having a negative effect on their kids?
Parents are keen observers and often the best eyes for noticing sudden or gradual shifts that could signal a negative effect from their kid’s sport participation. As mentioned earlier, the pressure to compete may prevent athletes from speaking up when their level of enjoyment and eagerness to continue begins to dwindle. It is important to be aware of particular mood shifts — including, but not limited to increased anxiety, sadness, isolative tendencies, or unhappiness. This same state may be observed through interactions with teammates or coaching staff.
While sport is definitely not always the root cause for this experience, it can be a contributing factor if your child is no longer wanting to play. You may notice this more around practice or game time if their excitement diminishes or you start to hear more excuses and reasons for not wanting to go. A sudden performance decline or change without other obvious explanations can be another indicator something is not quite right or moving in a negative direction.
Understandably, bullying within a team setting can also be an underlying cause for experiencing greater desire to cease involvement within sport. Just because their trajectory with sport takes one of these mentioned turns does not mean sport is suddenly off the table. Kids may just need a break, a place to process their experience, or someone else to notice an interpersonal obstacle happening within their sport.
Are there any sports more prone to these pressures or body weight concerns?
Athletes are in a unique spot when it comes to the predisposition for developing a distorted or negative body image, as well disordered eating behaviors that can intensify into a full-blown eating disorder. Messages and expectations concerning what one’s body should look like are often encouraged by those closely involved in the athletic experience (i.e. coaches, teammates, etc.), but also the culture and imposed values within a particular sport.
Focus on body image is very common within, but not limited to, sports with an emphasis on endurance, thinness, or aesthetics, as well as those with subjective scoring and weight demands. Some examples are running, gymnastics, wrestling, figure skating, and rowing; however, all sports carry some level of risk that can promote body weight concerns and distortions. Team uniforms are another component to sport that incite comparison and competition, but also emphasize the idea that one must maintain a particular physique in a uniform in order to perform well or be seen as credible in sport.
If a child is in a sport that does tend to put pressure on its athletes to be of a certain size/shape, what can you do to help them have a better body image?
As described above, it may feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle by constantly challenging ideas, messages, and “shoulds” implied by society and the performance environment. Don’t give up. Consistent reminders for what our bodies do allow us to do — regardless of weight, shape, or size — are so impactful!
You’re not alone in trying to relay these messages to kids. There are many body positivity advocates and media/sport figures who are also great role models with their body and mind.
Be aware of how you talk about or describe your own body and also how you fuel it. Kids are sponges who absorb messages or beliefs role modeled to them. This practice can even help some parents implement greater self-compassion for themselves.
When thinking about prevention of burnout or overtraining, be mindful of the amount of time your child is dedicating to sport. Often, they have nothing to compare this experience and trajectory to, so you may need to be their compass and set of eyes in order to allocate an appropriate amount of time in sport, as well as assess the need for a reprieve.
Melissa, thank you SO much for the much needed information and advice! —Jenn