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Sports and Kids: Pathway to Healthy Development or to Unhealthy Competition?

— NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Sports are big news. Special sports sections in print and television news media keep expanding; scores make headlines; teams have loyal followers and vocal detractors; outstanding players have fan clubs and serve as role models for kids. Sports are also big business. In addition to tickets to events, a lot of clothing and equipment are sold. But, in addition to all the positive hype, scandals about drugs and personal bad behavior tarnish the image of some talented and highly paid athletes. And stressed out kids are dropping out of sports. To find out more about current trends in sports and kids, AOK interviewed Marianne Engle, Ph. D., a sports psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at the NYU Child Study Center.

How significant is sports in the lives of children and adolescents?

How many are actually involved in sports? Sports participation is a major factor in the development of most American children. About 20 million American children ages 6 through 16 play organized out-of-school sports, and about 25 million youth play competitive school sports. 30 to 45 million kids ages 6 through 18 participate in at least one school or community-based athletic program

What are the top team sports for children ages 6 through 17?

Here's how they rank. 1.) Basketball: Over 4 million players. 2.) Baseball: Over 2 1/2 million players. 3.) Outdoor soccer: Over 2 million players. 4.) Touch football: About 2 million players. 5.) Court volleyball: Almost two million players.

What do children gain from participating in sports?

The gains are numerous. Research has shown that sports contribute to psychological well-being by reducing anxiety and depression and enhancing self-esteem. In sports kids find a social milieu that can promote a spirit of social interaction, cooperation and friendship. Sports help kids think critically and solve problems, build self-discipline, trust, respect for others, leadership ad coping skills, all of which form the foundation of character building. Sports have also been shown to improve academic and occupational outcomes, lower school dropout and deter delinquency. And, of course, sports develop the mind/body connection by strengthening the body and training the mind to use it for action and reaction.

Girls have been participating more in sports. Are there specific benefits for girls?

Girls who play sports are more comfortable taking leadership roles in group settings. They learn to set goals and achieve them. Also, according to recent research, female athletes have been shown to have their first intercourse later in adolescence and are less likely to get pregnant than female non-athletes.

Should kids start sports at an early age?

Children younger than 5 years of age should be involved in exploration and simple motor activities. For young children, just keep them moving and having fun, and don't focus too much on organized games. For school age children, focus on developing skills, teamwork and trying out different sports. Avoid early specialization and too much game time. Before that, team sports should focus on learning the games and trying out many different positions on each team. Eager, fun-loving children can turn off sports when the competition feels too heavy too early.

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