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How much is too much when it comes to youth sport?

How much is too much when it comes to youth sport?

How to coach with a Balance is Better philosophy

How to coach with a Balance is Better philosophy

Balance is Better Principles Poster

Balance is Better Principles Poster

Creating a positive parent culture

Creating a positive parent culture

Research: Youth Sport Programs: An Avenue to Foster Positive Youth Development

This article is shared by Player Development Project

Research paper by: Jessica L. Fraser-Thomas, Jean Cote, and Janic Deakin

The Big Idea

Richard Feynman (1918-1988), the celebrated theoretical physicist, once wrote about an experience he had while visiting Hawaii.  It was suggested that he visit a Buddhist monk who lived high up in the mountains.  He did so.  Somewhere in their discussion, the monk told Feynman something he never forgot.  The monk said: “To Man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.”

When we talk of youth sport programs, this is one human lived experience where we actually see how the same key works both gate locks. Since we are obviously capable of designing many such kinds of programs, it is a good thing to know the difference between heavenly and hellish designs. This paper helps us know the difference.

Why is this important?  Because growing up may be more difficult for youngsters today than even just a generation ago.  Behaviour problems, emotional stress, depression, alcohol and drug use, school dropout—all key indicators of ever more children growing up troubled.  Inequities are increasing, whether socio-economic status, issues of race or gender, health, or even environmental challenges.  So maybe more than ever it is important to know how to use this one key in the service of growing better people instead of just better performers.


  • Promoting positive youth development is a universally important need.
  • This approach is considered asset building: helping grow ever-better human beings by nurturing ever-better youngsters.
  • The 2002 National Research Council and Institute of Medicine identified five traits of positive youth development: competence, confidence, character, connections, and compassion/caring.
  • It is possible to cultivate these characteristics through well designed positive youth sport programs.
  • This can (possibly) happen through physical, psychological, social, and intellectual development.
  • But it is also possible instead to develop negative youth sport programs if the preoccupation is institutionally determined by way of winning at all costs, unethical and unsportsmanlike behaviors, or coercion and exploitation of young athletes.
  • The extent to which positive youth sport programs succeed depends on two well-functioning aspects: positive program design and positive adult involvement (parents and coaches).
  • By integrating the roles of policy-makers, sport organizations, coaches, and parents it is possible to derive a new model for more confidently fostering positive youth development in sports.

The Research

In the first two sections of this paper, the authors review the existing literature on positive youth development and on positive youth experiences and outcomes through sport.  The reader will fairly quickly understand what social challenges and issues have combined to make what are called positive youth development (PYD) programs helpful, even necessary given the frequency of:  two parent families but both parents working; single parent families; increases in unsupervised time at home; poverty; increases in parent-rated behaviour problems; substance abuse; childhood obesity—and the list goes on.

Positive Youth Development

Typically, researchers have taken a “deficit reduction” approach to solving youth social problems.  A single problem is selected.  Let’s say the problem is childhood obesity.  New journals appear.  Interventions are designed.  Strategies are deployed.  Data is collected and published.  The intervention may or may not work.

The newer approach is “asset building.”  In other words, positive behaviours are promoted to not only reduce problem behaviours but to foster opportunities for children to lead healthy, meaningful, and productive lives both as a child and an adult.  In other words, PYD programs aim to improve the chances for children to experience life success (asset), not simply to lose weight, if needed (deficit).

The short list of hoped-for developmental outcomes from well-designed and managed PYD programs includes: protection, enhancement, and resiliency.  (40 developmental assets are listed in Table 2 from a 1997 study by Benson.)  The children who are high in the number of developmental assets tend to: 1) thrive in school, show leadership, volunteer, help others, and be optimistic about the future overall; and 2) are less likely to flirt with high-risk behaviours such as alcohol, tobacco, and drug use, and less likely to be depressed, suicidal, exhibit anti-social behaviours, be violent, or have school problems.

Positive youth experiences and outcomes through sport

There is something odd about the relationship between PYD and the common youth sport programs.  Because typical youth sport programs are becoming more institutionalised around the world, youth sport is becoming more difficult to be asset-building.  Such organisations make youth access to sport increasingly expensive, competitive, and elitist.  The PYD movement is, in contrast, determined to make their sport programs more accessible regardless of socio-economic status, race, culture, ethnicity, or gender.

The literature on the benefits of youth sport participation has accumulated over the years.  But there is far less literature devoted to the benefits of positive youth sport participation.  Nonetheless, there is every indication in the existing, if recent, research that life benefits can be found in four positive youth developmental categories: physicalpsychological/emotionalsocial, and intellectual.

Physical development

  • Sport can facilitate normal growth and development in children.
  • Sport can assist in health cardiovascular fitness and weight control.
  • Sport can improve development in skills, muscular strength, flexibility, and endurance.
  • Active youth are less likely to develop many of the adult chronic diseases.

Psychological/emotional development

  • Sport can reduce stress and increase self-esteem.
  • Sport can increase levels of life satisfaction.
  • Sport can be a darned good source of subjective well-being.

Social development

  • Sport can foster citizenship, positive peer relationships, and leadership skills.
  • Sport can be an early source of later adult career satisfaction.
  • Sport can reduce levels of school dropouts and delinquency.
  • Sport can provide opportunities to experience community integration, social status, and social mobility.
  • Sport can inspire cooperation, responsibility, empathy, self-control, initiative, and persistence in the face of disappointments.

Intellectual development

  • Sport can assist in improving academic performance.
  • Sport can positively influence high school students’ grades, attendance, taking honor-level courses, homework time, and educational and career aspirations.
  • Sport can also be an important way to foster cognitive development in youth.

Negative youth experiences and outcomes in sport

Even though youth sport is potentially capable of achieving the positive outcomes listed above, that doesn’t mean that it necessarily will.  This is because it is also possible to tip sports programs into less positive and downright negative outcomes within youth sport experiences, such as:

Physical development

  • Sport can cause injuries and eating disorders.
  • Sport can create unhealthy over-training consequences.
  • Sport can undermine natural growth and development.

Emotional/psychological development

  • Sport can create unhealthy pressures to win and perform.
  • Sport can contribute to low self-esteem and low self-confidence.
  • Sport can intensify athletic performance pressures causing athlete burnout.

Social development

  • Sport can increase levels of violence and aggression in competition.
  • Sport can compromise sportsmanship.
  • Sport can blur the lines of moral reasoning and ethical choices.

What factors contribute to positive and negative experiences and outcomes in youth sport?

The authors of this literature review and discussion do sort out the good and the bad in youth sport.  The two most important contextual factors are program design and adult influences.

When we consider program design, the research indicates that early sport specialisation is a less successful strategy for positive youth development, including the development of elite athletes.  Programs that are too serious and focused only on winning are less likely to be enjoyed or sustained.  Instead, early sport diversification opportunities appear to promote significantly improved appreciation for sport.

Adult influences include the primary roles of parents and coaches.  The research shows that parents who support their children in youth sports more often create happier, more cheerful and alert athletes than parents who criticise and berate.  The negative results appear when the child feels trapped or exploited by their parents.  Much the same can be said about the influence of coaches.  Democratic coaching styles are perceived more positively than autocratic styles.


Model building is popular among researchers.  The authors conclude their paper with a suggested development model explicitly designed to teach positive attributes of youth sport.  This model may have been the first one to integrate youngsters’ physical, psychological, social, and intellectual development.  The result is an applied sport-program model of positive youth development dependent on the inclusion of policy-makers, sports organisations, coaches, and parents.  Such a cohesive approach would foster successful implementation by way of integrating the youth’s stages of development, appropriate environmental settings, and asset building.  Anything less is likely to add to numerous youth sports programs with little that is positive about them.  If the master key opens both gates, which gate do we choose to unlock?

Image: Rajarshi Bhadra

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