Playing at Sports

As a clinical child psychologist interested in youth sports, I’ve seen a huge cultural shift in the meaning and culture of youth sports. Parents have noticed it, schools have noticed it, and psychology researchers have noticed it. In the talks that I give to parents and schools, the message is clear: although sports have traditionally been a means of play and release, they too often serve now as another task or job for kids. Why are youth sports becoming another stressor for kids and their families? How can parents and schools reposition sports as means for kids to be healthy, have fun, and learn cooperation and teamwork?

Resource Scarcity

One way we can understand this shift in the culture of youth sport is through the lens of perceived resource scarcity. Social science research tells us that competition increases when people perceive desired resources as scarce or difficult to obtain. That is, the harder it is to achieve a desired goal, the more vicious the competition to achieve it. For example, when people perceive jobs or money as scarce, they are more likely to express racial prejudice, sexism, or nationalism.  

In my experience, parents of children and adolescents are increasingly concerned with college admissions and setting their children up for “success.” For whatever reason, admissions to “good” colleges are seen as scarce resources and so children must compete for those few prized spots that will guarantee them “success.” Sports, like grades and test scores, become part of a student’s competitive package that is offered to college admissions in hopes of making the cut.

This pressure exists despite the fact that we know that the “goodness” of a college is a function of the fit between a kid and a school. Some kids will fit at Stanford, some at Harvard, some at state schools, some at community college, some at small Midwestern liberal arts colleges (Like me! Go Beloit College!). When kids are forced into a bad fit college setting, they will end up feeling lost and out of place, potentially giving them a negative view of their abilities and education in general. Furthermore, there’s no evidence that playing a sport will increase a kid’s likelihood of getting into a selective college.

When I served as the consultant to the UCSB D1 Department of Athletics, I worked with several student-athletes who, in pursuit of getting into a “good” school, were left feeling stupid, anxious, and disinterested in academics. I’m not sure that’s what their parents wanted for them. And in more recent years, I’ve worked with a host of 10 to 13 year-olds who struggled with anxiety disorders, sleeplessness, and anger outbursts. All of these kids spoke at length about the pressure to perform in school, in sports, with friends, and with their parents. Kids want to please their parents and fit in with the cultures of their schools; when the main message is that value is a function of performance, then performance is the most important goal. We can understand why they might struggle.

Grit and Life Lessons

In recent years, I’ve also heard parents talk about using sports to teach grit and perseverance. There has been an increasing focus on grit in both the social science literature and in the popular press. Like most concepts that are tossed around, grit is easy to misunderstand. Defined as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals” (Duckworth, et al., 2007), grit predicts success in education, occupations, and sports. We can all agree that grit is a good thing, but a few things to remember about the concept: 1) Grit is an internal passion and perseverance. Parents forcing their children to do running drills or sports “homework” is not an internal experience for kids; it’s an external pressure. That doesn’t teach them grit; it teaches them obedience. 2) Grit must be realistically directed. Some kids have a greater passion and aptitude for sports than others (the same is true for academics); grit toward a goal must be realistically consistent with a child’s skillset and, more importantly, personality.

Like grit, sports are a great way to learn wonderful life lessons: health, teamwork, compassion, grace under duress, perseverance, and cooperation (I’m sure we could list others). Luckily, kids can learn these things through music, community service, leisure time with family, and unstructured play time with peers. Sports are a great addition to a kid’s life, but they should not be another stressor.

Putting Sports in their Place

Research tells us that the number one reason that kids play sports is because it’s fun. Likewise, the number one reason that kids quit sports is because it’s no longer fun. Parents need to listen to their kids and may even need to serve as the “emergency brake” to slow their kids down, particularly in competitive school cultures. Parents need to focus on personal values, not outcomes and achievements (and to be honest about what they’re doing). Schools need to make clear values statements about their sports programs, emphasize health, participation, and exploration. When they play, they should play to win, but that shouldn’t be the only reason they play. Finally, in keeping with the mission of Challenge Success, both parents and schools need to recognize and agree that balance among leisure, education, creativity, physical health, and family time is vital for real “success.”


Steve Smith, Ph.D. is a professor of clinical psychology at UC Santa Barbara and a member of the Board of Directors of Challenge Success. He has a private practice where he works with children, adolescents, and adults, with a specialization in boys and men, sports, health, and emotional concerns. In addition, he gives many invited presentations each year at professional conferences, schools, athletic clubs, work groups, and parenting organizations. He also served as a staff psychologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He is the author of over 40 empirical papers and has authored or edited five books.