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Balancing Competition And Fun In Youth Sports

More than 52 million young people around the country participate in organized sports, according to the National Council of Youth Sports. 

Many parents see it as a way for kids to get physically fit, and learn teamwork and discipline. And a lot of parents like to see their kids win, too. But how important is winning? And how much pressure should parents and coaches put on young people to be the best athletes they can be? 

Recent research from the University of Kansas suggests that positive sports environments improve the overall psychology of kids.

To see what the scene is like for kids sports in Kansas City, KCUR's Zack Lewandowski ventured to Leawood City Park, where 5- and 6-year-olds were playing some T-ball. First year youth T-ball coach Rich Eide said his main concern was the kids' enjoyment.

"At this age group, I just want to make sure everyone has fun," Eide says. "At the same time, we want to learn the game, but we aren't really concerned with winning."

But as kids get older, parents and coaches encourage them to be more competitive. In Kansas City, KCUR's Susan Wilson checked out the baseball diamonds of 3-2 Baseball, where 9- and 10-year-olds were playing.

"This is about the age where coaches start getting stern with them and getting that tough voice with them," parent Mike Loman says. "And it gets a little tougher than, 'Well it's ok, you tried hard and that's good enough." 

Parents and coaches in both Kansas City and Leawood could think of examples where the adults get out of control.

KU associate professor Mary Fry, who co-authored the study examining about 400 youths and their sports environments, thinks that can be dangerous.  In this interview, she sheds light on her findings, as well as what parents and coaches can do to be better influences on their kids.  KCUR's Susan Wilson also asked how Fry would respond to criticisms of being too “soft” on kids.

Interview Highlights

“Sports are just such a critical arena for kids to have positive experiences and want to be physically active. We have an epidemic here with kids that are less active and unfit, obese and overweight. We know that physical activity is really important for kids. So this question of how we can make sport a more fun and positive experience is really an important one.”

“The focus should be on every child’s effort. So at the end, a coach should be able to say, ‘Wow, I really got excited when kid’s tried hard. I pointed out improvement. I gave a lot of technical instruction to help them see how they can improve. And I really tried to foster cooperation in that we want kids to be supporting one another—not feeling like they are competing with each other within a team.’”

“It doesn’t mean we have this tea party setting where it’s just, you know, everybody’s great and hey, if you don’t want to try hard that’s ok. This environment is about pushing everybody hard to be the best they can be. But when you do work hard, and you give your best effort, and you’re trying to be the best you can be—then we should affirm that and praise kids for that.”

“I feel strongly that parents need to be very proactive and check out programs well, before they enroll their kids. They should inquire to the league director what kind of coaching education is required or is available for coaches. What are the policies? What is the philosophy of the program? They really want to look at a program where the emphasis is on every kid’s development.” 

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Susan admits that her “first love” was radio, being an avid listener since childhood. However, she spent much of her career in mental health, healthcare administration, and sports psychology (Susan holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Bloch School of Business at UMKC.) In the meantime, Wilson satisfied her journalistic cravings by doing public speaking, providing “expert” interviews for local television, and being a guest commentator/contributor to KPRS’s morning drive time show and the teen talk show “Generation Rap.”
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