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    Pressure to perform can outweigh the benefits of children’s sports

    The benefits for children playing sports are plentiful. Teamwork, setting and accomplishing goals, developing small motor skills and the physical activity are just a few, and they can take a child far toward becoming a well-developed person – even if they don’t pursue sports professionally as an adult.

    However, playing sports can increase a child’s potential for suffering from anxiety, stress or feeling burned out, says Dr. Mirjam Quinn, assistant professor in Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University, Chicago. And these negatives could affect a child so profoundly that other aspects of the child’s identity are not developed. The pressure to perform is costing children and their families the benefits of playing sports at a young age.

    “There is too much pressure on parents and children alike to be the best, to be special, to be ‘truly gifted,’” says Alan Nathan, an associate professor in the Clinical Psychology program at the American School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University, Washington, DC. “Parents are often made to feel that if they don’t make their child shine over and above the rest, the alternative is a life of failure.”

    While some parents see the purpose of sports is to help their children remain healthy and develop positive life skills, others can feel that sports are a vehicle for college scholarships and careers as professional athletes. That means that sports for children are becoming more competitive and the family is becoming more invested in the game. “With more and more youth sports being played within ‘club teams,’ families who can afford the costs for the club’s coaching, travel to tournaments, and private coaching are often seen as better sport parents,” says Quinn. “With the individual sports like golf, tennis, figure skating and gymnastics, it is even more of a status symbol to have a child who has achieved some level of success.”

    Kids are careful observers, and the actions a parent takes can send an unintended message, especially when it comes to the child’s performance in the sport.

    “When kids see their parents one-up each other over their children’s sports performance, they get the message loud and clear – ‘You are more worthwhile when you do well,'” says Nathan. “Providing external rewards (including praise) and focusing on performance rather than the process of learning saps children of all enjoyment of the activity. Their motivation shifts from intrinsic rewards (like feelings of competence, pride and enjoyment) to external rewards (like performance evaluation and praise). Many kids become dependent on the external rewards and their self-esteem crumbles when they do not win.”

    The difference between a kid who benefits from organized sports and one who is crushed under the pressure depends on whether or not that child has parents and coaches who foster a healthy attitude toward sports. While keeping your children front of mind during their sports activities can be a challenge for some parents, it is a necessity.

    “The most important issue is that the child enjoys his or her participation in the sport and feels his or her parents are supportive,” says Nathan.

    “If you are a parent and you find yourself becoming emotionally wrapped up in your child’s performance in sports, academics or advanced basket-weaving, it is probably time to take a step back and remind yourself that it’s your kid who is out there, not you,” cautions Quinn. “At the end of the day, your child is a worthwhile person, regardless of whether she does well or fails outright.”

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