Taking part in organized youth sports is an enjoyable way for adolescences to increase their physical activity, however, how much sports or fitness exposure for a developing child’s psychological well-being is too much?
A 2011 survey according to ESPN, reported approximately 21.5 million children in the United States between the ages 6 and 17 who participated in a competitive sport organization (Kelley & Carchia, 2013). This means chances are, while driving around your local neighborhood, you have witnessed a little league or youth sports team gathered on the field or at a community facility practicing a recreational sport with their team members, coaches, and the parents watching the entire time.
From afar, these children appear to be having fun with their peers, learning new skills and improving their physical and mental health. However, in midst of the playing and practicing is the inherent system of competitive youth sports that is capable of negatively impacting the young athlete in their search for body self-esteem, self- regulation, and pro-social behaviour (Rosenberg, 1979).
You might say there are more positives to youth sports than negative but consider these conditions.
According to Visek, Harris & Blom’s (2013) article, transitional years of adolescence are the most influential in establishing the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional maturity of children. Vernon (2004) whilst discussing the importance of physical maturation, emphasizes the importance of mental and emotional development because the comprehensive understanding of self-image and the subjective peer-to-peer judgement at this developing stage has the LARGEST impact on their transition of confidence into adulthood.
What is the inherent system of youth sports you might ask? Upon further observation, here are some of the deeper implications related to the competitive nature of adolescence sport uncovered.
Youth sport programs tend to implement coaching tactics designed predominantly for college and professional athletes (Merkel, 2013). These coaches are by default, role models for the children as they are constant adult figures in the athlete’s life other than the child’s parents. The belief that the coach is working in the young athlete’s best interest sets the adolescent up to endure intensive training and repercussions directed by their coaches, even if it is not suited for their less developed bodies. With the competitive nature between athletes embedded in college and professional sports transpiring into youth sports, increased pressures to win a sports match or to perform a certain physical standard for the youth coach, the emphasis on achieving the optimal body shape and size to play at peak performance prevalent in the culture of sports causes many young athletes to struggle to find peace with their bodies (Inetwork, 2017). As other members in the sport teams are achieving these standards, the individuals become positioned to be accountable for their own health/ performance, leading them to self-volunteer and change their overall lifestyle choices to fit the rest of their teammates and mold into the coach’s expectations, commencing the construction of a virtuous bio-citizen (Szto & Gray, 2014).
Attributions that encourage this unconscious social attitude and social behaviour to mold into the desired physique as an athlete does not only come from coaching influences! The expectations to excel in competitive sports also come from peers participating in the sport and even parents themselves, causing critical issues regarding scrutiny towards self-worth and body image.
Take this analogy at a smaller scale, for example. Although I was not in a sports team growing up, I did participate in sports clubs in elementary as well as physical education period during school hours. Knowing that others in my class or club were much more engaged and physically fit than me, it prompted me to see myself and my body differently. If I was scrutinizing the way I looked as a non- athletic body, imagine being in an environment where having the athletically fit body was everything.
As Foucault (1975) states, “disciplinary power is exercised through its invisibility… it is this fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in [their] subjection… and holds them in a mechanism of objectification.” This theory, known as the Panopticon, shows how the unspoken pressures to live up to their peers, the coach, and parent’s standards surveils the young athlete unknowingly, reproducing the discourse of being the bio-citizen and acting as an agent of surveillance of themselves and others to become docile and obedient bodies of western athletic standards (Szto & Gray, 2014).
Parents putting too much emphasis on winning and have impractical expectations for their children’s level of fitness will also contribute to the negative experiences with body image in maturing athletes. Being at such a young age and integrating a lifestyle that requires them to change how they look to fit a certain athletic mold, the developing adolescence allows the standards in these sports community to regulate and facilitate their own physical transformations to become a “good” bio-citizen.
Turocy et al (2011) reported that due to pressures placed by peers, coaches or parents in organized sports at such a young age, these athletes often attempt to maintain their weight by not eating, limiting their caloric ingestion, and/ or restricting fluids. These factors associated with weight control are to “optimize” the youths physique, quantifying aspects of their own body to compare with the “ideal” fit and universally accepted athletic body.
This comparison of different physiques through collectable and measurable data identifies the adolescent as a body of self- surveillance – open for scrutiny on body image and self- worth. To measure and visibly see the progress of changes in their bodies, it shows how important impression management and “living up” to the expectations of peers and their adult figures is. These are the beginning stages of adolescences in youth sports becoming a quantifiable self (Millington, 2014), which highlights the inherent culture of youth sports where the norms embedded within the culture of sports, in parallel with the western ideal of a successful athletic body embedded within the perspectives of peers, coaches and parents, affects a developing adolescent’s journey of finding and conducting themselves in societal spaces.
“Am I doing good enough for my parents?” “Am I performing at my utmost in comparison to the other team members?” “Can I win this for myself and for my coach?” “Am I capable for this? Do I need to work harder to achieve what everyone has or wants?”
A result of this excessive pressure coming from their everyday adult figures and amongst peers will push these developing individuals to develop and reinforce pre-mature anxiety, stress and varying levels of attrition at a young age (Paediatr Child Health, 2005). Imagine the pressure put on those young kids, especially when the expectations amongst the organizations are so high!
At the expense of having fun and developing skills for a sport, the pressures on these young and developing athletic bodies are even more intense. In today’s generation it is not just about participating and enjoying the sport but about having a set of skills that can be executed to its optimum. In a CNN article, a coach at UConn, Auriemma, says “It amazes me how many coaches ignore this responsibility because a player’s talent might lead to a win.” The players will “always [be] thinking about themselves… me, me, me, me, me. ‘I didn’t’ score, so why should I be happy?” he also states that “they’re going to get yelled at by their parents if they don’t score enough points” (Wallace, CNN, 2017).
Analysing the bio- politics of the ideal modern, western, physically fit athlete portrayed in everyday life, and understanding its prominence in the inherent culture of youth sports, we can see how the pressures to maintain a presentable and physique worthy- self influences the developing, youth athlete and their formation of social and moral relationships with themselves as well as others. Pushing their adolescent bodies to its limit to achieve the “ideal” autonomy.
Changing the future of youth sports will need the collaborative efforts between parents, coaches, health and fitness institutions, and social change. By establishing a new guideline to fitness and health, it will allow children participating in youth sports organizations to thrive, benefit from, and sustain their “fun” in sports. By incorporating the new model of physical, moral, and social character in the athletic image, these young athletes can enjoy recreational sports while establishing a balanced physical and psychological lifestyle that is vital for adulthood.
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