The Impact of Competitive Youth Sports on Children

Oct 25, 2013, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD, is an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Scholars in Health Policy Research program. She is a Harvard sociologist and author of the book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

Youth sports have been taking a beating these days—for example we have serious concerns about concussions in football and other youth sports, along with worries about an educational system that often seems to emphasize athletics over academics. Not to mention overzealous parents and kids who attack referees, as I have previously written about. In this context it’s easy to forget that sports can help promote physical fitness, health, and even nutrition among our children.

There are additional benefits to participating in competitive youth sports, along with other competitive afterschool activities, as I detail in my recent book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture (a manuscript I completed during my time as an RWJF Scholar in Health Policy Research). Children can also acquire important life lessons from activities like chess, dance, and soccer—what I call “Competitive Kid Capital,” based on my research with 95 families who have elementary school-age children involved in these competitive endeavors. These five skills and lessons are: (1) internalizing the importance of winning, (2) bouncing back from a loss to win in the future, (3) learning how to perform within time limits, (4) learning how to succeed in stressful situations, and (5) being able to perform under the gaze of others.

Today such competitive activities are most often tied to the American middle class, but as I write in a recent article at The Atlantic Education, “It has not always been this way. About a hundred years ago, it would have been lower-class children competing under non-parental adult supervision while their upper-class counterparts participated in noncompetitive activities like dancing and music lessons, often in their homes. Children’s tournaments, especially athletic ones, came first to poor children—often immigrants—living in big cities. Not until after World War II did these competitive endeavors begin to be dominated by children from the middle and upper-middle classes. The forces that have led to increasing inequality in education, the workplace, and other spheres have come to the world of play.”

As scientists (both social and medical), we need to consider what it means that access to so many youth activities—especially those that promote health and exercise—is so differentially distributed. Of course, it’s not clear that these activities are always in the best interest of all kids (see this paper I co-authored that was recently published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, based on RWJF-funded research, that finds that overuse injuries from youth sports are common among kids 13-17, along with this visual presentation of the data I put together for The Boston Globe Magazine). Yet, the preponderance of the evidence highlights long-term benefits to participation that matters for both bodies and minds.

What do you think are some of the positives and negatives related to competitive youth sports, and what activities do your children participate in today and why?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.