Every young athlete who plays sports faces challenges. Learning a sport’s basic skills—how to throw, catch, kick, or hit a ball—are the first of many. As a child progresses, he or she also needs to learn a sport’s patterns of play. Coupled with strategies and tactics, this knowledge helps a child compete and enjoy success. In team sports, young players must also learn how to play well with their teammates.
Besides the physical skills and knowledge needed to excel in sports, however, are another set of potential roadblocks to a child enjoying sports and doing well. These lie in the external influences that come from coaches, parents, and other kids—ones that affect how a child feels about his or her participation in sports.
Let’s take a closer look at how these individuals and their actions can impact a young athlete’s self-esteem.
Good coaches are good teachers. Not only do they teach technique, but they also communicate the values of the game and reasons to play. Ideally, they recognize what each of their young “students” need to succeed and how best to teach it. A firmer hand may benefit one child while a more relaxed, fun approach may benefit another.
But in youth sports, a positive coaching approach is always best. This approach goes beyond simply teaching skills, giving praise when they’re performed well, and encouragement when they’re not. A youth coach must also recognize both a child’s current abilities and the child’s potential. And just as important, the coach must set the spark that enables a less-confident child to believe in his or her ability. Finding the right role for each child, the one in which a boy or girl can meaningfully contribute to the team, can ignite this belief. Even smaller roles help a beginner believe that they can contribute, that they too can compete and join in the play with their teammates.
Youth coaches fall short when they don’t provide a child with a glimpse of hope and success; when their approach fails to bring a child into the fold of a team. For example, placing a child in a role that far outdistances his or her current ability only undermines the child’s self-esteem. The child fails to execute skills they are not yet capable of performing, sees himself or herself in a negative light, and perceives (real or otherwise) disapproval from teammates. Worse yet is the youth coach who criticizes the young player for mistakes in these situations.
Parents likewise play an important role in how their child experiences sports. They first provide the opportunity for a child to participate. Whether it’s playing catch, signing a child up for an organized league, or encouraging their child to play pickup games with neighborhood friends, parents are the gateway to opportunity.
How parents perceive the values and benefits of sports participation also impacts the young child. Those who emphasize the intrinsic internal rewards of play encourage their child in a way that can result in years of enjoyable sports participation. Practicing and playing hard, doing so to the best of one’s ability, and striving to win (but not being defined by wins or losses), are values that strengthen a young person’s self-esteem—regardless of the outcome of any one contest.
Although most parents do a great job, there are unfortunately some who are too involved in their child’s sports. These parents may place too much emphasis on the external rewards (winning, trophies, etc.). They may push their child into competitive sports, or higher levels of competition, before he or she is ready. They may vicariously live out their own passion for sport through their kid’s activities.
Unfortunately, these parental behaviors can hurt a child’s self-esteem. When the young athlete fails to meet his or her parent’s expectations, the child feels less worthy. What was once fun now only frustrates. And as the joy in playing is lost, all too often, the child drops out of sports. More damaging, are those occasional instances where a child becomes so dependent on his or her parents approval that they begin to lose confidence in their sense of self. This can have negative consequences that extend far beyond the child’s participation in sports.
The Role of Peers
Every young athlete, of course, interacts directly with other kids who play sports. Whether it’s playing pickup games, organized sports, or socializing off the court or field, there are countless moments that either build or diminish a child’s self-esteem.
Often, a young athlete is surrounded by friends and other players who are positive influences. These other kids may appreciate the inherent beauty of a well-played game and want to see everyone play their best. Even at an early age, they may understand how this setting can spur them to play better. Others in the group may naturally feel supportive and want to see others succeed along with themselves.
But there are also other kids who are competitive and view success directly in relation to their peers. For them, it’s not necessarily a win-win scenario, but instead one in which their success may come at the expense of another. They may use “gamesmanship” (e.g., trash-talking) or other intimidation tactics in an effort to undermine an opponent’s confidence. To win a starting position or gain more playing minutes, they may do the same with teammates.
A young athlete may also be subject to similar behavior off the field. Cliques and other group dynamics effect a child’s overall self perspective; sometimes this view extends to the child’s self-esteem as it relates to playing sports.
To succeed in sports, each child must develop a belief in his or her abilities that stands up to competitive and social pressures. Good instruction, talent, desire, and hard work can all help a young athlete develop the self-confidence needed to play sports well. For many it’s a natural progression. Their abilities transcend any attempts by others to shake their belief in themselves. Once they realize success, they hold on to it tightly.
But for others, finding a balance between competition and acceptance is more difficult. They may hold back — even if it means sacrificing their own individual success. In these instances, parents and coaches can help. They can help a child understand that each person possesses certain gifts, and that the expression of these gifts is often the path to enjoying life. It’s also important that each child understand that it’s okay to compete; that individual success need not be sacrificed to gain acceptance by his or her peers; and that sometimes, one must grow beyond the expectations of others.
Finding the Right Path
Positive self-esteem, as it relates to participating in sports, is really about each child finding his own path. The right sport, the appropriate level of competition, good instruction, and supportive environments all help build a realistic and healthy view of one’s participation in sports. For competitive athletes it helps foster their belief in yet higher achievement; while in others, it simply drives continued participation. But whether a young athlete eventually becomes a high school or college star, or instead enjoys lifelong participation in recreational sports, the most important rewards are usually found in the playing.
Jeffrey Rhoads is the author of The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child.” He also writes about youth sports in his Inside Youth Sports blog.