The Power of Sport for Youth: Part One
Posted by: Allie Perugini & Jess Hanson | University of Denver Sport Psychology
A recently published report exploring 2019 youth sport participation trends found:
- 73.2% of children ages 6 to 12 and 69.1% of children ages 13 to 17 participated in an individual or team sport.
- Roughly 17% of children ages 6 to 12 engaged in no sport activity during the year, dropping from 19.7% in 2014.
- Nearly 18% of children ages 13 to 17 engaged in no sport activity during the year, dropping from just about 20% in 2014.
*Source: State of Play 2020
This data, which was collected pre-pandemic, paints a pretty clear picture of just how many children are involved in sport in some form or another and the growing number of kids at least trying sports once throughout the year.
Recent research highlights the physical benefits for youth who participate in sport. You are probably familiar with the specific effects on physical health, so what about other aspects of a child’s health and overall development? How can participation in sport influence self-esteem, emotional control, the ability to demonstrate empathy, and true leadership capabilities?
The benefits of participation in sport for youth span various domains. In this two-part blog series, we will further explore the influences not just on physical health, but on psychological, emotional, and social development, and share some potential action steps for fostering the most positive effects. In this first blog of the series, we will take a closer look at how exactly youth sport can be utilized as an opportunity for structured and unstructured play and the number of wide-ranging benefits that accompany the creation of this opportunity for athletes.
The Significance of Play
One of the most common motives for youth participation in sport and continued participation is because sports are perceived as fun. Unsurprisingly, when children decide to quit playing a sport, the reason is often because this crucial element of fun no longer exists.
So, what does a “fun” sport experience consist of? And how does the use of structured or unstructured play in organized sport lead to increased health and developmental benefits for young athletes, as well as a more enjoyable sport experience? Let’s first break down these two different types of play.
Structured Play: This type is regulated by adults – they are the ones creating all the rules and responsible for settling any conflicts that arise. Participation in structured play is important so youth can receive appropriate instruction for building foundational skills, such as those related to effective movement that influence long-term physical activity. Other benefits may include enhanced self-esteem and emotional control. This is also where opportunities for true fun can be created.
One proposed definition of fun in the context of sport is a balance between challenge and skill. For example, the challenge posed by a particular activity, exercise, or drill, matches the skill levels of the athlete. Structured play allows the ones regulating the activity to provide a challenging experience that aligns with skill levels, which simultaneously requires youth to demonstrate increased concentration and exert high levels of effort. This combination likely results in a perception of fun and ultimately, continued participation in sport.
Unstructured Play: This is also known as “free play”. While adults may be present to observe and ensure the safety of the athletes, youth are provided a sense of autonomy and allowed to control some or even all aspects of play. This may include what they play, how they play, and with who. While there is often a heavy emphasis placed on structured play in organized sport, incorporating more free play into the lives of youth athletes can be incredibly encouraging and empowering.
In fact, it is common for youth to experience the highest levels of intrinsic motivation when engaging in activities that involve minimal to no adult control. Along with increased intrinsic motivation, the sense of freedom, lack of pressure, and opportunity for decision-making that often accompanies unstructured play promotes adaptability, creativity, and can aid in the development of social skills, such as conflict resolution and negotiation.
While there are clear reasons to create opportunities for youth to engage in both structured and unstructured play, actively shifting away from a heavy focus on structured activities and intentionally integrating both types of play can heighten levels of concentration and effort, enhance enjoyment, and effectively build social, emotional, and foundational sport skills.
*Source: Barreiro & Howard (2017)
A Team Effort
To fully harness the true power that youth sport has to offer, it is crucial that those holding prominent and influential roles understand their impact and how they can assist in maximizing positive effects. Below are just a few suggestions for how coaches and parents/guardians can focus on fostering an enjoyable sport experience that simultaneously benefits the physical, mental, and emotional health of our youth:
- Emphasize fun and healthy competition. Be mindful of athletes’ skill levels and utilize drills and activities that offer an appropriate challenge. Also, prompting athletes to evaluate their own performance to discover what and how they want to improve can encourage the desire to focus on bettering themselves and nurture a healthy competitive atmosphere.
- Incorporate unstructured activities into training. Providing opportunities for athletes to choose drills, games, or what skills to practice can serve as a crucial mental break during long training sessions and create a fun environment to learn and practice a variety of social skills.
- Positive role modeling. It is common for athletes to spend just as many hours during the week with a coach as with family. Thus the coach holds an incredibly influential role and by modeling good sporting behavior has the power to cultivate sportsmanship and leadership qualities in their young athletes.
*Source: Merkel (2013)
- Discuss readiness and interest. Create the time and space for your athlete to share their readiness or interest regarding sport participation. These check-ins and conversations can be beneficial, as it provides a sense of autonomy and engages them in the decision-making process. This can enhance overall enjoyment and satisfaction with a sporting experience.
- Establish realistic performance goals. Avoid focusing solely on competition outcomes or goals that only revolve around winning and bring attention to the importance of skill development and goals specific to your athlete’s performance. To increase accountability and likelihood of goal achievement, brainstorm together!
- Prioritize free play. Make time throughout the week for your athlete to engage in unstructured activities of their choosing. This can be spontaneous skill practice by themselves, with friends, or teammates, or engaging in any form of youth-led pickup activities where there is less pressure and regulation from adults.
Sport, having the potential to improve physical, psychological, emotional, and social outcomes, is capable of molding our next generation of leaders. Being intentional with how we ultimately shape the sport experience for our youth allows sport to become a vehicle for empowering and supporting young athletes through their growth and development.
We hope you enjoyed reading about the myriad benefits that a positive, powerful sport experience can offer youth and some ideas for incorporating more elements of unstructured play in and outside of an organized sporting experience. Stay tuned for next month’s blog where we will further explore the impact of sport on children’s social and character development while specifically looking at the promotion of life skills. Thanks for reading!
- Barreiro, J. A., & Howard, R. (2017). Incorporating unstructured free play into organized sports. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 39(2), 11-19. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0000000000000291
- Merkel, D. L. (2013). Youth sport: Positive and negative impact on young athletes. Journal of Sports Medicine, 4, 151-160. https://doi.org/10.2147/OAJSM.S33556
- State of Play 2020 (Rep.). (2020). Retrieved https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/state-of-play-2020/introduction