Keeping Kids Emotionally Safe on Youth Sports Teams

Keeping Kids Emotionally Safe on Youth Sports Teams

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Learn to make your kids’ sports experience as positive as possible

Few activities have as many benefits for kids as youth sports. They provide opportunities for camaraderie, physical fitness, and fun. For talented athletes, youth sports can also be a path to higher levels of competition and, for a select few, college scholarships.

There can be a downside to youth sports, however. While concussions and other physical injuries have been in the spotlight lately, there are also ways sports can hurt your child emotionally. Here are a few things to watch out for, and steps you can take to keep your child emotionally safe.

Youth sports red flags

Poor sportsmanship. There is a difference between healthy competitiveness and inappropriate aggression. Youth sports participants will experience victories and defeats, personal bests, and unexpected failures. Ideally, teams help children learn how to deal with these triumphs and disappointments. When coaches and parents on the team model overly aggressive, unsportsmanlike behavior, children notice and learn from them.

Too much, too soon. It is flattering to hear your child has potential, but when coaches pressure children to train hours a day, what was once an enjoyable activity can become a burden. Solo Moms in particular might find it convenient for their kids to have a structured, supervised activity for hours every afternoon, but kids should still have time to play and do other age-appropriate activities.

Pressure to specialize. This is the cousin of “Too much, too soon.” Coaches often convince athletes and their families to participate in one sport year-round, at the expense of other activities and hobbies. With increasing frequency, however, high-level coaches, including Urban Meyer of the Ohio State Buckeyes and Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks, have spoken out against year-round specialization. Playing multiple sports reduces the risk of physical injury and burnout, a fact recently reported in a New York Times article in which Jack Roberts, the executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, called the trend of specialization a “public health crisis.” Symptoms of burnout include depression, fatigue, insomnia, a decrease in performance, and physical injuries.

Guilt-based, negative coaching. Some coaches motivate athletes by yelling, shaming, and belittling, all behaviors that would be considered bullying if perpetrated by a child’s peer and abusive if committed in a romantic relationship. Such tactics can damage a child’s self-esteem.

Poor boundaries. Even more dangerous than a guilt-based, negative coach can be a coach with poor boundaries. Unfortunately, child predators often put themselves in positions of trust so that they can have access to children. Not all coaches with poor boundaries are pedophiles, but all coaches with poor boundaries normalize “child grooming,” or befriending the child or child’s family to lower their inhibitions. Practices that should be red flags often become so commonplace that predators can blend in easily. Coaches should not have peerlike relationships with their athletes on social media, via text, or in person.

Overstating the importance of athletics. It is a recipe for emotional instability when a child’s sense of self-worth is tied to his or her athletic performance. Some coaches entice athletes and their families with the promise of scholarships and higher levels of competition even when such prospects are unlikely. That type of rhetoric can set young athletes up for deep disappointment. Sports are just one part of a healthy, fulfilling life.

What can you do to keep your child emotionally healthy in youth sports?

  1. Model sportsmanlike behavior at athletic events.
  2. Have your child participate in a variety of sports and extracurricular activities.
  3. Watch out for coaches with poor boundaries. A special red alert for coaches who try to insert themselves into your life beyond the team. Solo Moms are easy victims for this type of targeting and grooming.
  4. Affirm your child’s sense of self-worth beyond his or her sport.
  5. Remember, your team is not a cult. If you are uncomfortable with your child’s team or coach, find a team that is a better fit for your family.

Danielle Bostick, a former Solo Mom and ESME’s Wellness–Mental Health Resource Guide, is a Latin teacher, an advocate, and a mom to six kids in Winchester, Virginia. When not working as an educator, Bostick writes about the National Football League for various sites and sexual assault and child sexual abuse for the Huffington Post. You can find her on Twitter: @danibostick, and on Facebook: Dani Bostick.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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