The mother of an 8-year-old convinced her daughter isn't "playing to her potential" in soccer. A kid who worries that quitting volleyball will mean he or she won't have anything to talk to dad about. Parents who say they've invested too much money to let their daughter quit tennis.
These are all real-life examples of unhealthy outcomes that can occur when youth sports prioritizes performance over personal growth, according to clinical and sports psychologist Steve Smith, who gave a recent Zoom presentation aimed at local parents on "the twisties," hosted by the Parent Education Series.
Smith's Sept. 15 remarks came little more than a month after women's gymnastics superstar Simone Biles withdrew from several finals in the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her safety and mental health after experiencing what the gymnastics community calls "the twisties" a mental block that occurs when an athlete loses spatial awareness during an intense routine. Biles is joined by household-name athletes Michael Phelps and Naomi Osaka in leading a growing public discourse about athletes and mental health.
Smith is a Santa Barbara-based therapist, consultant and counselor who specializes in working in person and remotely with athletes and those involved with sports, among other clients. He lived in Mountain View from 2014 to 2016 while he was on faculty at Palo Alto University.
"When our identity gets yoked to our performance, a bad performance means that we are failures and competition is a direct threat to who we are," he said.
As children develop, he said, they progress from defining their identities from very concrete definitions, to how they are like or unlike others, to eventually viewing themselves through an internal system based on experiences and goals in late adolescence.
For many young athletes, being an athlete is a core part of their identity, and when something threatens that, it can be a struggle if they don't have other well-developed elements of their identity to fall back on, Smith said.
On one hand, he said, there is a large body of research highlighting the overall positive health effects of sports involvement for youth.
"Sports are great for kids, point blank, almost all of the time," he told attendees. "The best research seems to suggest that sports are good for kids over the long haul."
Most of the research available points to a correlation between youth participation in sports and a number of healthy habits such as decreased anxiety and depression, healthier eating habits and a lower likelihood to use drugs or experience problematic drinking, he said.
However, he added, in the past two decades or so, youth sports have become increasingly professionalized, and there are parts of that culture that can create negative consequences for kids.
As an example, he described a sixth grader who practices the same sport year-round, is on travel teams, and has private coaches and personal trainers. That child is faced with enormous pressure much of the time to perform well in front of people who can advance his or her athletic career.
According to research, he said, kids should not specialize in one sport until they are around 13 or 14 years old.
Youth who dive too early into specialization in a sport that involves repetitive and deliberate skill-building exercises activities that aren't, objectively, much fun, he points out face a "substantially higher risk" for overtraining or injury, he said.
Some of the problems that may come along with an early sport specialization include the possibility of a shrunken social circle, underdeveloped social interaction skills or increased family conflicts or stresses due to overscheduling, he said.
There's even some recent research indicating that kids who specialize early are less likely to be physically active as adults, he said.
"Early specializers tend not to be the best athletes ... over the long haul," he said.
For youth who do adopt a single sport early on, the type of activities they pursue within the sport can also make a difference, Smith said.
He recommended that these kids pursue activities that prioritize "deliberate play," or ones that simulate a competition or game, perhaps with modified rules, rather than "deliberate practice" activities like throwing, catching, fielding or running for a developing baseball athlete. Deliberate play will hold kids' interest longer than deliberate practice and will still bolster their skills, he said.
He reminded attendees that the reason that people like sports and the reasons they like their children to participate in sports are different.
The top reason children like sports, he said, is because they're fun, while adults generally like sports because they "enjoy seeing highly skilled people at the peak of fitness doing things that are hard."
Meanwhile, adults like to see children participate in sports because they teach valuable life lessons about teamwork, health, being in nature, perseverance, commitment and dealing with adversity, he said.
"We like to watch sports largely because of performance; we like kids to be in sports because of the process, and those are different things," he said. "Kids suffer when they can't tell the difference, and especially when parents, coaches and social media can't tell the difference."
Teaching kids to focus less on performance and more on the process tends to not only improve performance, but also can boost emotional well-being and reduce anxiety, he added.
The Parent Education Series is sponsored by the Woodside High School PTSA, Sequoia Union High School District, Sequoia Healthcare District, Peninsula Health Care District and The Parent Venture, a Menlo Park-based nonprofit that provides education to parents, students, educators and community members.
Go to parentventure.org/events to learn more about upcoming Parent Education Series events.
Email Staff Writer Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]