Concerns of Teen Competition in Sports

In the late hours of the afternoon, most American high schools are filled with the sounds of teens participating in group sports. Gyms resonate with the whoosh of a ball flying through a net, while grassy fields are filled with yelling and laughter from players passing a ball back and forth. Participating in some kind of organized sport just seems like a rite of passage for most adolescents, and a study from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in 2011 suggests that about 70 percent of those ages 6 to 17 participate in some kind of team sport. In most cases, this is considered a remarkably healthy activity, as teens who play sports learn valuable lessons about teamwork, goal setting and physical prowess.

Why Win?

Everyone agrees that winning is an important part of the sporting life. After all, if winning a game wasn’t important, there would be no need for officials to keep score. Winning is also just an important part of the culture. Those who can push ahead of others and achieve what others cannot are often called “winners,” regardless of whether they’re in the sporting world or the business world, while those who don’t beat out others are sometimes called “losers,” and the connotations that word evokes are remarkably negative. Young children pick up these lessons early in life, and they might have an intense need to beat others in sports and declare themselves winners.

But some of the pressure to win might come from their parents and coaches.

Adults who want their kids to win might get a little boost of pride when they see their children do well in a sport, and they might be willing to do all sorts of things to push their kids to win, including:

  • Asking a child to focus on only one sport
  • Signing up the child for private lessons
  • Investing in at-home training equipment
  • Driving the child to all practices
  • Attending all games, whether at home or away

Some of these parents may relentlessly focus on winning in the hopes of help with college tuition. As the cost of higher education programs continues to rise, parents might feel that a child’s prowess on the athletic field could result in a paycheck that could make college more affordable. Unfortunately, the National Letter of Intent suggests that only about 2 percent of teen athletes get sports scholarships for college. There are just too many teens playing sports, so getting money is difficult. Those who do get a scholarship might also be dismayed to discover that the assistance they receive is quite low. In an article in the New York Times, authors suggest that the average scholarship at an N.C.A.A. school is a little more than $8,000. Often, this doesn’t even put a dent in a family’s expenses for books, tuition, housing and food.

Even so, parents might see the gleam of money ahead, and they might mistakenly push their athletes, with disastrous results.

Pushing Changing Bodies

Teens are rapidly developing, growing new muscles while their bones lengthen and strengthen. They might be both strong and agile, but they are also quite prone to injuries. Placing a body like this under intense pressure with endless training could lead to very serious injuries, and research suggests that more and more teens are enduring these problems each year. For example, a study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that injuries related to sports were more common than injuries related to car accidents, and among those ages 15 to 24, basketball and football were associated with the highest injury rates.

Teens deep in competition might hurl their bodies about in ways that win the game but cause injury, and these are often spectacular displays that are hard to miss. But some teens develop tiny injuries in their muscles and bones that cause them intense pain without any sort of visible wound. Teens like this might be encouraged to keep playing and pushing, and their injuries could become so painful that they’re forced to medicate with drugs or alcohol, just to keep moving forward. Even then, these teens might be too injured to keep participating in sports.

Male athletes might also be enticed to enhance their performance with steroids, particularly if they’re involved with sports like:

  • Football
  • Wrestling
  • Weightlifting
  • Hockey

Being a little bigger allows players a competitive edge, allowing them to push past their opponents with ease. But it can be hard for some boys to bulk up without drugs, and steroids might seem like an easy answer. These drugs can also be addictive, however, and teens who use these drugs for sports may soon transition to taking the drugs for recreational purposes. Athletes like this might need therapy in order to break the addiction cycle.

Issues of substance abuse and injury aside, pushing a child to win could also make that child simply hate sports. Teens often engage in these activities because they enjoy spending time with their friends in a team environment, and they enjoy the opportunity to burn off excess energy and feel a little better about their growing bodies. Winning might be important, but it might not be the only benefit a teen can see in relation to sports. By endlessly focusing on the score, parents might be beating the joy out of sports in their children, and those kids might grow up to be completely sedate adults.

Balance Is Key

While teen competition in sports is associated with very real dangers, it’s important to remember that playing sports can also be quite good for these young adults. For example, a study in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life found that teens who participate in sports felt better physically, socially and mentally. They just thought their lives were going in the right direction, and they felt both healthy and satisfied. Parents shouldn’t dissuade their children from participating in these activities, since they can be so helpful, but they should look for ways in which to make the sports fun for their kids.

Finding balance might mean encouraging a teen to participate in a myriad of sports, perhaps switching activities with the seasons.

Parents can listen to their teens and remain alert for concerns regarding performance, and they can meet with coaches if teens seem so focused on winning that they’re not enjoying their time on the field.

Parents might also watch their own language regarding sports. If the teen is praised after a win but berated or criticized after a loss, that child might feel as though winning is the only thing that matters. Praising the child’s performance is a better option, focusing on the ways in which the teen is improving and participating, rather than on the outcome of the sport.

Teens who no longer express any joy in sports, or who begin to consider drugs in order to enhance their performance, might need to take a little time out from the activity. There’s no harm in quitting, if the child needs to take a break. This might be the perfect opportunity for parents to step back and really assess the child’s mental health. If the teen is overwhelmed, perhaps counseling is necessary to help that child get back on track.

If your son has been using drugs to enhance his act on the field, or if you think he’s gone astray and needs a little help in order to grow into a healthy and happy adult, please contact us. At Muir Wood, we specialize in providing a supportive and healing environment for adolescent boys with behavioral and/or substance abuse issues. Download our parent’s guide to find out more, or call us with any specific questions you might have.