Self Esteem and the Young Athlete by Jeffrey Rhoads

Today, Fit2Finish welcomes author, athlete and longtime coach, Jeffrey Rhoads, to the blog podium. I know you will enjoy his perspective and his obvious heart for our young people and the sports they play. Jeff 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.

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.

Positive Coaches

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.

Supportive Parents

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.


Self Esteem and the Young Athlete by Jeffrey Rhoads — 3 Comments

  1. Hello! I’m working on this health project and have been researching about this topic that I’d chosen: Self-esteem. “How might parents’ high expectations affect a their child’s self-esteem?” is my question. I read your blog, and it’s really good! I agree the part where you said how high expectations can harm a child’s self-esteem. I agree. This not only happens in sports, but also in all areas of the child’s life, including academics. This raises this thought in my mind of how our society today demands of us. Society, especially the media, often tries to make us feel bad about our self-images. Because it portrays all these perfections, like how a perfect body should look, we tend to try to strive toward those perfections and eventually realizing we’re trying to meet society’s expectations of whom we should be. Because we fall short, our self-esteems are undermined. So, not only do parents greatly affect their child’s self-esteem, but teachers, coaches, friends, and of course the whole human society today do, too.

    • Hi Phuong,
      I am glad you are working on this project. Healthy self esteem is so important for young people and unreasonable expectations are a very real problem. You have mentioned parents (and other adults) and society (especially the media) as the causes. I don’t think that high expectations are a problem. We always want to reach higher and improve – that is how we grow. It’s when expectations are too high and there are consequences when we don’t reach what we are not able to achieve that ill-health and broken relationships happen. (This is true not only for young people.) I would advise you, in your studies, to look at what is behind the high expectations. If they are in the best interest of the child but are unreasonable then modification is necessary to stay on track. In the case of the media, those images are NOT in the interest of the child. They are selling products, often based on false expectations – even doctored images. This is not only unhelpful, but it is wrong.

      If you write up some results from your study, let me know. I’d love to share them on the blog. Keep up the good work and keep reaching higher.

      • Hi, Wendy!

        Thank you so much for replying! Yes, I totally agree with you about the importance of healthy self-esteem in this modern society. And yes, high expectations have both negative and positive effects on a person’s self-esteem. High expectations can set the bar for us to reach higher and higher. I agree with what you said. Speaking from my own life, I’ve always relied on high expectations from others (parents, teachers, coaches, etc.) as my ultimate goal to keep going. Without those expectations, I could’ve given up many times during those times of doubts and troubles.

        I run cross country and track and am very fond of my head coach. I was injured during most of the CC season and missed out a lot. But my amazing coach gave me the hope that I’ll get better and they’ll get me there (who knows where “there” is). She and other coaches made me feel as part of the team and as important as everyone else. She worked with me patiently during the season and is now helping me ease back into things for track in the spring. She did not undermine my self-esteem, but instead, I think she’d given me much more confidence and hope. <– Just an example of how an individual (coach) can impact an athlete's self-esteem.

        And yes, there are serious consequences that result from unreasonable high expectations…like you mentioned.

        Yeah, I understand what you mean about how media in society is not in interest of a person. But what I don't understand is that isn't media trying to set the bar (maybe they might not intend to) for others. Media is telling society what they "should" do and the kind of people they should be.

        After reading your reply and commenting this, I feel like there are different types of unreasonable high expectations: expectations that are in the best interest of a person – can have negative effects on one's self-esteem and need to be modified and expectations that are not – effects on self-esteem depend on how one views those expectations (like images).

        Thank you so much once again for taking your time to reply my comment. I've learned a lot.

        Phuong 🙂