Are We Failing Our Children?

Adult Involvement in Child Athletes


Amanda Tuzik

Directed Research

Undergraduate Thesis





“A fish does not reflect on the nature of water.  He cannot imagine its absence, so he cannot consider its presence”

-Walker Percy regarding competition in youth sports





            My main goal in this research project was to analyze the motivational factors that create fanatic adults in youth sports.  Through personal experiences and the observation of media sources, it has become apparent that positive parental behaviors have been out-competed by the immature actions of a highly visible minority of fanatic individuals.  For intriguing reasons, parents and coaches have been pinpointed as the nemesis for entertainment in youth sports.  A thorough investigation concerning this mysterious, nation-wide phenomenon has resolved personal intuitions.    




My main methods for extracting this information were to perform in depth interviews, research past studies, and physically observe children and their parents in game-like situations.  I performed a total of seven interviews with a variety of individuals.  For the purpose of their security, I used pseudonyms for each of my participants throughout this study. I interviewed an athletic director of a sports facility, five young adults who participated in youth athletics and a middle-aged man (Charles) who once played youth sports, and who currently has two teenagers involved in athletics.

The first interview I conducted was with Charles over the telephone.  I had received his name and number from a friend who graduated from Warren Wilson.  After briefly discussing my research project, she informed me that her uncle from Alabama would be a perfect candidate.  Due to the distance between us, I performed my first interview over the phone. 

As the interview began, it was very structured.  I posed each question in an orderly fashion, neglecting to choose the ones best suited for that particular topic of discussion.  I quickly moved away from this technique after realizing it made more sense to go with the flow and ask the question that fit into the discussion.  This was a great learning tool for the rest of my interviews.  I had a total of five phone interviews and three in person. 

I collected a total of five observations, all of which took place in Asheville, North Carolina.  The three different locations were W.D. Williams Elementary School on Warren Wilson Rd., Owen Park on Warren Wilson Rd. and Azalea Park on Azalea Rd. These observations included boys and girls anywhere from elementary school to middle school and the games consisted of soccer and baseball.  I chose these three locations because they were a convenient distance from campus.  For my observation at Owen Park, I simply rode my bike through Warren Wilson Campus to get there.   


Literature Review

            A lot of the literature I researched focused on both the negative impact of adult involvement and the ways in which they can go about providing children with a fun and friendly environment.  With Gatz, Messner and Ball-Rokeach (2002) suggesting, “sports are a major influence in the lives of America’s youth,” (p. 49) fun should be the dominant reason for their participation.  Unfortunately, an incredible amount of pressure is put on the athletes’ day in and day out, forcing them to second guess the purpose of their commitment, and more importantly, the condition of their health. 

It seems as though every sport out there has a calling for its own unique body type.  Renowned author Ryan (1995) summarized how “football teams consist of men with enormous muscles; basketball attracts tall men and women and swimming appeals to lean, muscular individuals,” (p. 67).  Gymnastics, on the other hand, tends to specifically target young women.  These girls, some as young as five years old, are placed in the same athletic category as the adult athletes stated above.  They are expected to perform with the same intensity and devotion, even if that means laboring through injuries.

In her book, Ryan (1995) combined numerous accounts of girls being over-pressured by the adults in their lives.  Many of the young ladies were pushed towards anorexia, bulimia and, more severely, to their death (Ryan, 1995, p. 59).  Coach Bela Karolyi was pinpointed as the man who pushed his athletes too hard physically and mentally.  A former trainer of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation said that “his philosophy was, if it isn’t bleeding, don’t worry about it,” (Ryan, 1995, p. 27). 

One of his students, Erica Stokes, recalled Karolyi calling her a pregnant goat (Ryan, 1995, p. 74).  The constant reminder of the importance of the perfect bodyweight, in this case, an unhealthy one, took a major toll on Stokes.  The emotional abuse she received had her convinced that throwing up was the only way to satisfy her persistent coach.

The mothers of the young athletes fell victim to Karolyi’s brainwashing techniques as well.  They would send their daughters to the gym with fevers, colds, stomachaches and the flu in fear that Karolyi would kick them off the team. 

Dr. Lyle Micheli, a pediatric orthopedist at Harvard Medical School says that gymnast who train more than sixteen hours a week are at high risk for repetitive stress fractures, most dangerously in the back.  The muscles of children can develop and strengthen like those of adults, but their bones do not keep pace (Ryan, 1995, p. 43).

While young athletes can acquire serious injuries by being pushed past their physical limit at such a young age, not-so-noticeable damage can occur as well.  

Traumatic experiences can be equally detrimental to a child’s health.  Children’s outlook on life is susceptible to change after witnessing a horrific incident.  Bigelow, Moroney and Hall (2001) maintain “children who witness atrocities may be so affected, that they lose interest in sports and more importantly, exercise,” (p. 104). 

Two teams of young hockey players witnessed the death of a man.  Two fathers attended their sons’ hockey practice in July of 2005; one was coaching the young boys while the other was observing in the stands.  The father in the stands thought his son had been checked too hard and made it known to the coach.  After practice was over, the two men had met on the ice and began throwing punches. Apparently, a rink employee had broken the two up, but they continued to fight.  This battle that was fought in front of a team full of young boys, sadly ended with the death of one man (Bigelow et al, 2001, p. 65-66).  Although this case proves to be extreme, it accurately represents the direction today’s youth athletics are heading in.

Another mind-blowing incident on the ice took place in a Canadian arena.  The playoff game for a peewee hockey league was well underway when the referee had to temporarily stop the game due to a ridiculous amount of debris being thrown on the ice in his direction.  “Spectators pelted him with coins, batteries, a water bottle and even a broom.”  This absurd behavior displayed by the individuals in the stands caused their own ejection from the game with only two minutes left to play (Bigelow et al, 2001, p. 67-69).  All 200 of the viewers that day not only made fools of themselves, but they made a bad impression on the young athletes that were innocent bystanders.

As stated earlier, these innocent bystanders are susceptible to an altered outlook in life.  Exercise is a vital part of a child’s developmental process and proves to be a reflection on their years to come.  “Youth who participate in sport programs should derive an appreciation of physical fitness.  In fact, youth ten to eighteen years of age frequently identify some aspect of fitness among their top ten reasons for participating in sports (Gatz et al, 2002, p. 32).  Unfortunately, children can lose this motivation for reasons of exposure to traumatic experiences or lack of entertainment.

A psychologist at the University of Chicago, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, had his own ideas on why children may end up losing interest in sports.  “The theory of flow,” he stated,

“People are happiest when the challenge they are facing is equal to the skills they have.  If children are provided with a challenge that is beyond their athletic ability, anxiety is likely to result.  If children are skilled and the challenge is not great enough, boredom is the likely outcome,” (Murphy, 1999, p. 50). 

In this situation, boredom can result in either taking action on the issue or finding a new interest to explore.  It is important for children to find some sort of sociable activity to partake in because they need to develop their sense of role-playing in a large group.  Garner (2000) stated that “the self is formed in society; it is flexible and changing; it responds to experience,” (p. 177).  George Herbert Mead continued by saying that this experience is necessary for complete development of the “I” and the “me.”  The “me” is the part of the self that relies on the actions and views of society to complete its formation (Garner, 2000, p. 178).  This completion of the self varies with each individual experience.  Competition will always be prevalent in youth sports.  Whether it’s taken seriously or light-heartedly is another story.

            Everybody responds to competition in his or her own unique way.  Some believe it brings out the best in us (Kohn, 1986, p. 45) while others believe that competitive environments actually hurt our performance (Kohn, 1986, p. 50).  It’s interesting to see how parents and coaches respond in competitive situations.  It seems as though children who are involved in sports are put under way more pressure than those who take up other extracurricular activities.  Engh (2002) proclaimed how “ironic it is how nobody yells at a child who forgets his lines during a play, who hits the wrong key during a piano recital or who misspells a word during a spelling bee” (p. 47).  With all the negative impacts of adult involvement being said, I must not ignore the positive influences they can have on children.

            Adult involvement in youth sports is in fact necessary.  The development during childhood and adolescence depends on receiving moral and economic support from adults (Gatz et al, 2002, p. 33).  This support is an essential means of mentorship that adults sometimes overlook.  In his book, Engh (2002) recalled one heart-warming experience he had recently heard of.  He said that a young man had called up his youth coach asking him to be his best man in his wedding.  The man was surprised and asked him why he wanted him to be there.  The young man told him that his encouraging and good direction in coaching made him into who he is today and that he’d like to thank him (p. 76).  This example goes to show that, if approached correctly, youth sports can be extremely beneficial in the lives of children.  




Children are a unique breed of their own who deserve special care and attention from the adults around them.  While the boys and girls of today will be the men and women of tomorrow, their main goal should be to enjoy what’s presently made available to them.  Many adults seem to have forgotten this implicit rule and instead, burden their children with the “winning is everything” attitude. They forget that “play provides mental and physical amusement with the motive being enjoyment, relaxation and stress-free pleasure,” (Engh, 2002, p. 125).  By instilling this approach and neglecting the children’s needs, parents are essentially robbing their children of their innocence.

There are many reasons why parents may succumb to this sort of behavior, including social acceptance, outside motivation, personal pressures, achievement by proxy, deprivation, experimentation with cultural norms and the necessity of parental roles.  Adults may behave in these manners for a number of reasons In this case, parents must ignore the nation-wide trends and focus solely on their own child’s hopes and dreams.

My parents were supportive of my choices in youth athletics.  I began playing tee-ball in elementary school, and then switched over to youth softball up until Middle School where I joined both the softball and basketball team.  I then took on softball and volleyball throughout all four years in high school.  With each step I took throughout these years, my parents were there with continual support.  They drove me to and from practices and games, cheered me on in the stands, paid for my team gear, allowed me to attend athletic camps and imparted positive advice along the way.  They may have had dreams of me furthering my athletic career, but they never forced these upon me and did not dwell on my choice not to participate at the collegiate level.

My interest in this topic lies in the observations of my friends, teammates and opposing team members.  My exposure to negative parental involvement at such a young age and for a long period of time opened my eyes to the ever-growing problem we have at hand. I have been on teams where coaches enforced a strict attitude about winning.  My volleyball coach came up with a new phrase each season to hype up the team. I remember one of them as, “Serve it in you win.”  With this mentality, it’s not difficult to psyche yourself out as you approach the service line.  One year for softball, my friend’s pitching coach aggressively yelled at an outfielder when she chose not to dive for a fly ball that landed in a thorn bush in foul territory.  These first-hand experiences, as well as exposure to the media, provided me with plenty of opportunities to observe this negative grown-up behavior.

It’s true that the news predominantly focuses on negative parental involvement with youth athletics, overlooking the many positive influences adults have on children. There are adults that do recognize youth athletics as a learning foundation for children and therefore structure their team in such a way that provides fun and organizational activities.  With sports being “a major influence in the lives of America’s youth,” (Gatz et al, 2002, p. 49) it should be a time where they go to enjoy themselves.  Although many 5:00 news stories thrive on negative incidents, other forms of media tend to overly exaggerate on the opposite.

Television shows like “Zoom” and “Barney and Friends” teach children cooperative skills and methods of good sportsmanship.  Movies such as “Rookie of the Year” and “Angles in the Outfield” provide children with the comforting notion that their parents will be just as loving and supporting of their athletic abilities as they are on the big screen.  These public examples instill children with anticipation and hope, which can sometimes be hindered due to the over involvement of a parent or coach.

Depending of the severity of the involvement, children could walk away with serious, life-long injuries.  Bigelow et al (2001) stated that:

“The developing bodies of children are more susceptible to such injuries.  During growth, children’s developing bones are softer and weaker; their ligaments, tendons and muscles are tighter.  Particularly at risk in children are growth plates, areas of developing tissue at the ends of growing bones.  A bruise or a sprain that might not be a significant injury for an adult athlete might result in a serious growth-plate injury in a growing child.  Injuries that are the result of overuse, develop slowly, and thus may be overlooked or not properly treated,” (p. 115). 


With proper training techniques and general knowledge of youth athletic limitations, these injuries can be avoided and handled intelligibly.  Parents and coaches must also take into consideration the individuality that children possess, and recognize that each child responds differently to physical and emotional pressures.  As a sports enthusiast, I’m concerned that this parental involvement will consistently worsen and children will continue to drop out of sports due to injuries and lack of enjoyment.  This research has not only confirmed, but also widened understandings of why sports have drastically changed over the years, why parents act as they do and has allowed me to come up with possible solutions. 


Diversification of Violence in Sports

The invention of the television began making its way into our homes soon after World War II. The rise of accessibility to this media source enabled a larger population to tune into live athletic competitions.  With this newfound convenience, more and more people were easily able to view disputes between players.  Engh (2002) stated that “the fights and arguments that had infiltrated sports were being seen for the first time on television screens across the country, and they raised the public’s interest in seeing the unusual” (p. 14-15).  As in most areas of life, anything new is exciting.  Viewing conflicts between opposing teams caught the public’s eye, enticing them to tune in regularly.

Exposure to this new sense of violence aroused the viewers and left them wanting more.  Gatz et al (2002) wrote, “TV perpetuates myths and drama about sports and the players of sport.  One of these dramas is that every sporting event is a battle between opponents who do not like each other,” (p. 51-52).  Engh (2002) used tennis as an example of how he thought aggression made its way into our lives. 

“The mid 1970’s and 80’s marked the arrival of the ‘bad boys’ of tennis. Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe ushered in a new era with their court antics of swearing at opponents, yelling at linemen, and throwing rackets.  These players were viewed as personalities who brought a face-lift to a sport that, prior to this, was seldom covered on the front page of sports sections across the country,” (p. 12-13). 


The spread of violence into athletics may have begun with the popularization of the television, but the media cannot take full responsibility of the issue.  Although video games today naturalize violence, the blame still falls on the shoulder of the parents.  Since violence has been associated with sports before the invention of the TV, it’s obvious that adult figures have had a major influence of the filtration of violent behavior into youth athletics.  Unlike Television land where the role models are two-dimensional, children have their parents and coaches to look up to and go to for advice.  If they observe their mentors lashing out in a game, they may get the impression that it’s an acceptable behavior.  Although it may be the most common sign, negativity does not necessarily have to be presented verbally. 

Body language is just as strong of an indicator as vocalized aggression.  A child in center field would easily be able to recognize a heated dispute at home plate solely by the lack of space between an upset coach and an umpire.   When negative situations occur more often than not, it drains the life out of sports and causes a decline in the return rate.  In fact, “parental rage will turn the child off to exercise and sports participation and prevent the development of healthy lifestyles that will promote wellness through the life span,” (Bigelow et al, 2001, p. 104).


Why Children Decide to Play

When neighborhood kids gather outside in the summertime, their main aspiration is to enjoy themselves with their friends.  Immaterial assets such as championships and MVP’s are furthest from their minds.  While they are in the yard having the time of their lives, their parents are rightfully fulfilling their own daily needs.  Jay Coakley has found that:

“Across a spectrum of informal sports, young people are trying to achieve four main objectives: 1) Action-the more the better.  2) Personal involvement-everyone plays as much as possible.  3) Excitement-close scores in contests, exciting moves in non-contests.  4) Friendships-the opportunity to interact with friends” (Murphy, 1999, p. 66). 


Each of these objectives are key in a child’s developmental road to success.  By taking part in this parentless socialization process, children can move forward in life with a healthy lifestyle. 

 A major part of a child’s developmental process is their ability to acclimate themselves within their society.  . One of the easiest ways to begin this socialization process is to participate in organized youth sports.  Activities that are incorporated in these organizations group children according to their age.  Physical play during infancy and early childhood is central to the development of social and emotional competence,” (Parents, 2004, para. 2).  By familiarizing oneself with this social band, the better chance they will have accepting their societal surroundings as well as being admitted into the social order.  The following excerpts from three different subjects demonstrate this to be a valid statement.

Me: Did you think it was a positive experience being around all the other children?

Scott: For Sure.  Now, seeing that I have a huge group of friends.  But I wouldn’t have known that when I was a kid, just hanging out.


Me: How did you get along with your teammates?

Stacy: Very Well.  Gymnastics deals with some very heavy teamwork, so you get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  We connected with each other a lot.


Me: After joining a team, how did you feel about your peers?

Amy: I really enjoyed playing with my teammates and became really good friends with a lot of them.



   The similarity of interest gave each of these individuals’ exclusive discussion topics with their teammates.  Murphy (1999) asserted that “team sports can provide a special thrill not often found in other life areas, where a group pulls together for a common cause (p. 62-63).  This thrill acts as a glue securely fastening friendships between the athletes as they venture on with the rest of their lives.  The important lesson of friendship also factors in the vital development of self-esteem. 

Every minute of every day, children are learning new things about themselves and constantly critiquing these findings.  Youth athletics can prove to be a beneficial tool for this department.  Gatz et al (2002) stated: 

“When sport programs teach skills, develop competence, and give young people opportunities to display that competence, self-esteem is promoted.  If this occurs in settings where young people are treated and respected as whole persons, and learn how to clarify their experience in the larger community in which they live, self-esteem may then grow into a general sense of moral worth (p. 26). 


In my interview with Paul, he briefly delved into how his seven years of competitive tennis paid off in the end.

Paul: I would consider tennis a positive experience.  I grew from it, learned discipline and composure.  It’s an experience that I went through.  Everyone goes through something growing up.  That was my thing.


Paul fortunately disregarded the intense moments he had with his father and focused on the beneficial aspects of his time spent with tennis.  By looking past these moments, he was able to walk away from the experience with a greater self-esteem.  Self-esteem is geared by many factors.  While Paul was able to obtain personal achievement from his encounters, others solely strive for and attain a sense of personal appearance.  I was able to further my speculations on this subject at an observation at Owen Park.

As I approached the park, I saw a group of twelve and thirteen year-olds anxiously take their positions in preparation to defend themselves in a preseason scrimmage.  After watching the game for a while, two boys in particular caught my eye.  The first boy, Jake, who was playing shortstop, carried himself in a very self-confident manner. 

His attire consisted of a cutoff Corona t-shirt, gray baseball pants with socks pulled up to meet the elastic, cleats, and a baseball hat.  My initial thought was that a twelve or thirteen year-old child would only be advertising a beer product on his body to seem more grown up than his peers.  Aside from his attire, he physically fit the bill of a typical baseball player with his lean, but muscular build.  The body language he presented conveyed a fondness of his own image.  This attachment of physical admiration could be part of the reason why he decided to play baseball that year.  Garner (2000) stated that:

Characteristically, the gloried self is a greedy self, seeking to ascend in importance and to cast aside other self-dimensions as it grows.  It is an intoxicating and riveting self, which overpowers other aspects of the individual and seeks increasing reinforcement to fuel its growth,”  (p. 185). 


Perhaps Jake needed to stress his own identity at this time in his life because he lacked significant attention from his mentors.  By overcompensating for their lack of awareness he may emit this overconfident behavior.  While his moral sense of worth proved to be different from Paul’s, it bears equal importance. 

The second boy that caught my eye was Joseph.  I first noticed him when he came up to the plate with bat in hand.  His demeanor shouted out “wanna-be thug.”  He wore a baggy white t-shirt, black shorts that came down past his knees, ankle socks and a sweatband on his left forearm.  He approached the plate in a slow back and forth mosey.  Every time the pitch came at him he would swing with all his might, spinning himself around completely. 

The manner in which Jake and Joseph behaved that day may have resulted from the natural progression of George Herbert Mead’s Symbolic Interactionism.  As stated in the Literature Review, Mead examined sport as a socialization process where the “I” and the “me” are developed (Garner, 2000, p. 178). The actions of these boys were in fact spontaneous as well as culturally learned from the individuals in their lives.  By choosing self-aggrandizement and arrogance as an alternative to “the boy next-door” demeanor, they could proudly emulate the ways of their mentors.  Adults can also affect the reasoning for the child’s decision to play sports.

Athletics appeal to many people because they are fun to play.  It’s a great feeling to get out on the court or the field and give it your all.  For some people, especially those who participated in youth sports, it’s just about as much fun to sit back and observe a game as much as it is to play.  This urge to watch a game can sometimes compel parents to push their own children into playing a sport, even if they’ve shown no interest in it. This is what jump-started on of my interviewees athletic interest.   

Me: What was your main reason for joining all of those sports teams (baseball, soccer, tennis, swimming)?

Scott: Big Poppa!  It was my grandfather who first, he was really big into sports.  And then it was brought down on my dad, so he had a lot of pressure, but he really liked all the games too, and so it was ok for him.  And so I guess, he thought that maybe I would like all these sports.  Some of them I liked, some of them I didn’t. 


  This is a perfect example of how one person’s interests can be passed down from one generation to the next.  Scott’s grandfather successfully instilled his love for sports in his son, who then tried to pass it on to Scott.  That’s the physics of human nature.  Ideas and traditions spread through interactions with people, who in turn, interact with others, continuing the distribution of those ideas.  The ideas of competition have spread through this exact method.  


Adult Motivation for Child Athletes

Many adults out there push their children to play sports at a young age for various reasons.  Social acceptance, outside motivations, the fulfillment of parental roles, child activeness, experiential development, the release of stress and unconditional love are all possible motives for parents.  Spectators often derive a sense of social identity and self-esteem from a team (ERIC Identifier, 1989, para. 3).  

An up and coming trend in America is to have the child with the busiest schedule.  It seems that the more activities a child is involved with, the better it reflects on the parents.  “Parents today are the stage managers for the meeting of three- and four-year-olds, just as in earlier eras, the adults managed marriages,” (Garner, 2000, p. 159).  A level of social acceptance is gained through their involvement in their child’s sports.  

“For some parents, their adult pursuit of social acceptance and accomplishment is almost completely wrapped up with the achievements of their children.  Adults are driven to keep up, to be accepted, to be seen as one of the popular crowd, one of the winners.  ‘You think you’re busy? Wait’ll I tell you my schedule!’” (Bigelow et al, 2001, p. 76). 

I unexpectedly came across this very phenomenon at Owen Park, located on Warren Wilson Rd.

There were several practices taking place on that beautiful Saturday afternoon.  The field closest to me consisted of twelve and thirteen year-old boys and girls, while the other two consisted of younger children.  I chose to observe the twelve and thirteen year-olds because their practice was structured like a real game, whereas the younger children were going over the fundamentals.  I took a seat on the home team’s bench and began to observe my surroundings. 

There was a mother to my left, about four feet away, and a husband and wife to my right, down a couple rows.  I couldn’t clearly see the other team’s bench due to the shadow of a building’s overhang, but I could hear about half a dozen distinct voices.  One voice in particular belonged to a woman who was mother of a petite, but very athletic little boy.  She had been very vocal throughout the entire practice, mostly spouting off irrelevant bits of information.  It wasn’t until the second to last inning that her words grabbed my attention.  “I have my other son’s practice to go to at five o’clock, so hurry!”  

The humorous yet arrogant tone in her voice immediately directed my thoughts towards social acceptance.  The way she publicized her schedule made me think she was bragging to the other parents, as if to say, ‘my kids are active and well-rounded, how about yours?’  The laughter that followed this proclamation seemed to be a cover up for her conceitedness.  It’s sad to think that it’s gotten to the point where adults look towards their children for social acceptance in today’s society.  Another approach parents take to fulfill their frantic desires is called achievement by proxy.

This term has been applied to parents who try living vicariously through the success of their children.  They innocently begin providing them with love and support as they venture off on exciting new journeys, but this involvement has a tendency to morph into an ugly obsession.  Bigelow et al (2001) stated, “parents are skipping work and letting other responsibilities go,” (p. 80-81).  Some become so involved, their child’s activities end up consuming all their time and energy.  This over involvement is an unhealthy lifestyle for both the parent and the child, and could easily cause friction to their fragile relationship.  One of my subjects seemed to border on the barrier of this delicate bond.  Paul grew up actively playing tennis with the vigorous coercion of his father. 

Paul: My dad played tennis as a kid and wanted me to too.  He was always pushing me, comparing the hours I put into it to hours put in by other kids.  It was a positive experience that I grew from and learned discipline from but I did regret it because I didn’t have any time to play with my friends.  I would confide in my mother, not my dad.  She tried to talk me out of it for that exact reason.   With my dad, the whole relationship was based on sports.  It was like that then and it’s like that now.  Eighty percent of our talks are sports related. 


With all that said, Paul still admits that he did and still does have a good time with his father.  Sure he was pushed a lot as a kid, but maybe he needed that structured, disciplined life at that time.  Without parental guidance, children could easily rebel against a structured lifestyle and choose an alternate source of recreation, such as illegal substances, vandalism, or theft.  By ensuring that their child’s time is consumed with positive reinforcements, parents can alleviate their concerns about them acquiring a negative lifestyle.

Not only will a child’s involvement in youth athletics distract them from delinquency, but it will ensure them an active and healthy lifestyle.   Parents know that such a program “involves physical activity and that it is a sharp contrast to other leisure activities such as watching television or playing video games” (Murphy, 1999, p. 45).  “Soccer moms,” as well as parents who take part in practices and games, can physically see their children running around getting exercise.  Childhood and adolescence are critical times to lay the foundation for lifelong physical activity,” ( Department of Health and Human Services, 2004, para. 2). This confirmation of a healthy lifestyle is a positive motivational aspect for parents.  In my interview with Charles, a father of two, he discussed how exercise and boredom played a major role in signing his twin son and daughter up for youth athletics.

Charles: My wife and I had watched some little children play a little bit before and thought it’d be good exercise for them and instead of just sitting around the house, we entered them into tee-ball when they were young.  In looking at the alternatives and things that have been going on around the community and all, you saw a lot of kids who were board.  We don’t have a park around, close by.  We didn’t have swimming facilities very close by.  There were no activities geared really for kids in our area.  So, it’s just good for kids to get out and run and play.  I think it was a very positive situation for them.


Charles later discussed how he commended youth athletics for helping mold his son into a more outgoing young man.

Charles: Even at ten years old, I would see my son, he knew these people from church and he would still shy away from them.  And I’ve seen him come out now to where he goes on a basketball court and he’s a leader.  He’s leading.  He’s motivational and I see him give direction out there and so I see him.  He’s come out of his shy stage a whole lot.  He’s got a presence, a confidence about him that he didn’t have before.  And I see that.  So I think in that respect, it’s been a great confidence builder.


Charles hit on three points of positive parental motivation for child athletes.  It would be beneficial to provide your child with an ample amount of exercise, an alternative to boredom and to present them with a tool to build their confidence and self-esteem.  These three motivational factors blend into a child’s socialization process.    

Surrounding a youngster with other children can prove to be a great socializing tool.  Youth athletics is a perfect example of a breeding ground for new friendships.  The combination of similar interests and the sense of belonging help create new and exciting bonds.  Murphy (1999) stated that, “children who have a tough time making friends or who seem to have problems getting along with other children, might be steered into youth sports that guarantee a variety of social interactions in an adult-supervised setting” (p. 48).  Along with new friendships, youth athletics offers children new adventures and exciting life experiences. 

New experiences are beneficial implements for helping children fully comprehend societal roles.  Structural Functionalism asserts that sports are a microcosm of society (Garner, 2000, p. 178).  Here, individuals get a feel for various roles to fill, which in turn, helps prepare them for real world situations. 

Scott, one of my interview subjects, informed me that his father thrust him into this structured microcosm for that exact reason.  My question to him was if it were too overwhelming to be involved in a variety of sports at such a young age.


Me: Do you think that your father pushing you into all those sports (baseball, soccer, tennis, swimming) helped you in the long run because you were able to see for yourself what you did and did not like to play?

Scott: My dad is all about opportunities. “You have the opportunity to learn about something new.  Go take it.”  So, he was offering me the opportunity to do all of these, and then he kind of pressured me into them.  But I think it was, I don’t know.  I don’t know if I’ll do the same to my kids or not, because I’ve learned that you need to let people decide, I mean, it’s good to show them the right way, but don’t make them play years on years.  But it did also open my eyes to a lot of other stuff…and after that, I kind of turned and moved into mountain biking in high school.  I found something that I really liked, out of all the stuff that had been offered.


In the end, it seems as though Scott did not fully regret his father’s assertive tactics.  He had been a bit forceful at times, but he admits that his methods did work on him.  He had been surrounded by countless new experiences, which directed him towards new opportunities.  Not only had he found his true calling in sports, but he also made several life-long friendships.

  By experimenting with a variety of sports, Scott was able to eliminate the ones he disliked and focus on his true passion.  After all those possible athletic interests, he came to the conclusion that extreme sports were his calling in life.  This tactic of bombarding a child with possibilities worked successfully with Scott, but that’s not always the case.  The parent/child relationship is a fragile bond that shouldn’t be taken lightly.  Some parents try to strengthen that bond by constructing their own participative roles in their child’s athletics.

By taking part in their child’s athletics, they can fulfill their parental needs.  It’s true that organized sports couldn’t function without the assistance of adults.  They provide the children with transportation, finances and structured leagues.  As children grow up and become less dependent on their parents, a feeling of satisfaction would result from this necessity they retain.  In extreme cases, parents may have a tendency to cross this fine line when monetary compensations are involved as well.

The temptation of prosperity is an extreme motive parents may succumb to.  Money can lure people into a fantasy world and destroy their ability to act rationally.  With an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 children participating in youth sports each year, (Ryan, 1995, p. 5), the media has a respectable probability of attracting “future stars” for magazine ads, commercial shoots, television shows and even films (Murphy, 1999, p. 54).  Parents from all walks of life have fallen accountable of such selfishness.  Whether they are wealthy, poor, or anywhere in between, something inside triggers this longing for money and popularity. “Many parents are so delusional about the abilities of their offspring they think that if the coach isn’t playing their child enough, he is being robbed of his chance of securing a scholarship to a prestigious university” (Engh, 2002, p. 48-49).  An example from the media that portrays this extreme motive can be seen with the Williams sisters.

Twin tennis stars, Venus and Serena, fell victim to their father’s selfishness before their conception.  Richard Williams had previously learned that the winner of a women’s tennis match won twice as much as his annual salary.  After hearing of this, he ultimately decided that his future children were going to be part of this phenomenon.  He went so far as to talk to psychiatrists and psychologists about what the tennis life entailed, and like clockwork, after his daughters were born, he began their training.  He went to the extremes in order to toughen the two up.  He encouraged the girls’ opponents to cheat and the fans to boo during both of their matches (Engh, 2002, p. 49-50) Mr. Williams’ actions do seem a bit extreme, but his intentions may have been good.

It’s obvious that his original motive was based on monetary grounds, but it seems he may have had alternative motives as well.  Fame is a big part of the athletic world, and he may have been trying to obtain achievement by proxy through his daughters in order to get some of his own popularity.  His main goal may have been to train them, and in turn, receive monetary compensation and celebrity focus through them. 

One can argue this point and defend Mr. Williams’ behavior by claiming him as the inspirational medium to his daughters’ success.  Without the strong persuasion on his part, Venus and Serena may not have discovered this talent on their own.  Luckily, the two girls prevailed and came out with a love for the game. 

I interviewed a girl named Stacy who was actively involved in gymnastics as a child.  Like the Williams sisters she was heavily encouraged to play by her mother, although her athletic career resulted a bit more realistically.  In asking her what her main reason was for joining a gymnastics team she said:

Stacy: My mom played when she was younger and she thought I might enjoy it just as much as she did.  She’s the one that brought up the idea to me.

Me: How did you feel about your time spent with gymnastics?

Stacy: I liked it a lot.  I made some really great friends because we all have similar interests.  But, uh, I did feel like it began to over occupy my time towards the end.  It was a definitely a positive experience though and I would go back to it but only for fun.


Unlike the Williams sisters, Stacy ended her athletic career at an early age.  By doing so, she was able to re-strengthen her relationship with her mother.  Today, she speaks highly of her time spent in gymnastics but admits that it was in fact overwhelming for a young girl. 


Coaches Retain Educative Roles

Coaches can have a major impact on the lives of athletic children.  Their attitudes and demeanors have the power to motivate boys and girls as well as turn them off to physical activities.  As stated in the Literature Background, coach Bela Karolyi was guilty of both circumstances.

Selfishness is one possible analysis of his behavior.  After pushing his gymnasts past their limit towards an unfathomable goal, spectators praised him, the coach, not the athletes, on a job well done.  This self-admiration is an egotistical approach to fulfilling ones own desires.

Negative reinforcement is another possible explanation for Karolyi’s drastic measures in the gym.  If a girl is told the worst about her talent, style, or body shape, then she only has improvements to gain from future experiences.  This backwards way of approaching this situation seemed to do more damage than not with the majority of his students.

A third possibility for the way in which Karolyi behaved may lead back to his own childhood years.  Elders around him may have projected negative manners, therefore permitting it as an acceptable treatment.  Analyzing Karolyi’s behavior allowed me to appreciate one of my fieldwork studies more, in that, I didn’t jump to finite conclusions.

At 9:30 one sunny, Saturday morning, I drove up on a youth girl’s soccer game at W.D. Williams Elementary School in Swannanoa, NC.  I approached the field with notebook in hand and senses alert for observations.  A line of family members were seated on the same side of the field I was approaching.  As I took my seat on the grass, one girl, (Sandra), immediately caught my attention.                          

Sandra’s defensive position was about twenty feet from where I was seated so I had a clear view of her.  I noticed she kept getting distracted from her father’s constant sideline comments and critiques.  She continuously took her eyes off the game to see what he had to say.  At one point, her distraction allowed the offensive team to kick a ball past her and into the goal.  At this point, my attention switched from Sandra’s father to her coach.

He threw his game book on the ground and his arms in the air in utter disgust and instantly removed her from the game.  His voice was so forceful that, as I sat on the other side of the field, I could clearly make out his choice of words.  “To the middle!  To the middle!” he yelled to her again and again.  Sandra’s coach may have been guilty of aggressiveness for the same reasons as Karolyi or he simply could have been having an off day.  Whatever the valid explanation is for his childish behavior, Sandra did not deserve to be treated in such a manner. 

Another case of a coach making poor judgment in front of the young athletes took place in Reading, Massachusetts.  In the Literature Background I spoke of the tragic hockey incident that occurred between a coach and a parent.  The ignorance and violence that was presented to the children that day provided them with a life-long lesson. 

Their eyewitness accounts provided them with the tool of knowledge.  They could have taken this tool and realized that what they saw was a tragic mistake, in which case, they would refrain from using violence in game-like situations.  Or they could have rejected this tool and ultimately been turned off from sports all together.  Fortunately, there are coaches out there that don’t dwell on insignificant actions and who don’t put their young athletes in the middle of strenuous situations.

Another soccer game I observed took place at Azalea Park in Swannanoa, NC.  The one coach that immediately caught my eye was a young, energetic man in the field to my left who was rounding up a dozen or so seven and eight year-old girls.  As I sat there and observed his approach to coaching, I saw ball after ball role into their goal.  No matter how many times the other team scored on them, he kept on encouraging his girls.  He never raised his voice to them or sulked after losing thirteen to two.  The Hallmark moment occurred after the ritualistic handshake with the opposing team.  The girls began walking off the field when their coach enthusiastically called to them to return to the field.  When they did, they had a tunnel of arms to run under, while their family and friends cheered them on.


The Debate Over Competition

Competition is a funny term that affects people differently.  Some may treat it as a challenge while others may view it as a negative form of pressure.  Ryan (1995) stated that, “pressure is like a virus that affects each person differently.  For some, it’s a challenge to be met but for most, pressure is an enemy to be beaten back, draining rather than invigorating.  (p. 138).  Those who become emotionally drained are usually the ones who drop out early or do not return the following season.  

It’s possible that these individuals retain more sensitivity than others and respond negatively to harsh tones and constructive criticism.  For this reason of delicateness, these children probably joined a team for fun and not for competitive reasons.  Many times, the naturally gifted players are the ones who become more competitive while the sensitive children usually do not advance that far.  Bigelow et al (2001) stated “the early bloomer, the child who gains an edge in physical strength and maturity relatively early, often finds success at a young age in the system of select teams” (p. 61-62).  In looking at my research, my interviews, my fieldwork and my own experiences, this theory seems to be not only extremely accurate, but very coincidental with the theory of flow.

Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, which was mentioned in the Literature Background, was the precise reason one of my participants chose to leave her friends and her comfort zone to fulfill her athletic needs. 

Me: How do you feel about your time spent with gymnastics?

Stacy: I liked it a lot.  I made some really great friends because we all had similar interests.

Me: How would you rate your skill level at that time?

Stacy: I was good.  I competed in a lot of competitions, and I eventually switched to a more competitive team.  It was my mom’s idea, but I didn’t mind the switch.  At first I didn’t like leaving my friends but I ended up having a great time with my new team, and I was able to compete more competitively.  I knew I wasn’t going anywhere at my last place.


            Here, Stacy, with the help of her mother, chose to do something about her lack of enjoyment with the team.  Although she befriended her teammates, she realized she wasn’t being challenged enough and decided to do something about it.  This is a positive way to deal with that sort of situation.  Granted her mother did offer her the idea, but Stacy could have refused if she wanted to.  It’s a fact of life that children are not the only ones that can show a competitive side.  Where could they possibly pick up this negative behavior from?  Parents. 

            Adult figures can greatly impact children’s values and beliefs.  If a parent continuously stresses the importance of competition and neglects to mention teamwork, good sportsmanship and fun, it can make the wrong lasting impression on a child.  This proves to be true with the majority of sports today.  Most leagues out there stress the importance of winning and losing by making a score board visible to the players and their fans.  The constant reminder of who’s in the lead by so many points can distract anyone long enough that they lose focus on the game at hand.  It’s interesting that parents seem to be more fanatic at youth sporting events than any other competitive setting. 


Youth Sports in a Positive Light  

            The positive influences set forth by parents and coaches have been out competed by the notorious negative examples set forth by the media.  My collected data and fieldwork provided me with information to support this hypothesis.  The majority of the parents and coaches I encountered were there solely for the support of their children.  In my fieldwork, it seemed as though I focused largely on adults who expressed negative behaviors.  I must explain that the reason for this is that these individual made it evident what their emotions were experiencing.  The majority of the adults sat calmly on the sidelines encouraging their children.

Adults have the power be great mentors for these young athletes.  Their unconditional support in life-altering situations prove to boost a child’s self-esteem and help them overcome personal obstacles.  Throughout my interview with Charles, I was able to uncover his thoughts on how sports can better a child’s character, and in his terms, help kids come out of their shells. 

Charles: I agree, it helps their confidence, and there again, if you’ve got a coach who’s screaming and yelling and tearing them down, then that’s not good.  That’s destructive.  You can give constructive criticism in some ways or instructional information.  But if you’re tearing them down in front of everybody, um, you’re not building their esteem.  And I’ve seen one coach locally that uh, I know a couple of star athletes that are dropping out simply because they won’t play for this coach simply because of the way he’s criticized them and torn them down in front of people: screaming and hollering.  And that tears away from them.  So you can see both sides of it, I mean it happens.  It really depends on the coaches and, the motivation there.  If these children were being paid thousands of dollars to play and it was a job, I could understand it.  But when they’re playing for free and they’re playing with their heart and playing for fun, then it’s good building tools and it can be used to do a lot if life.


Youth Sports Gone Wrong

There are many ways in which adults can interfere with a child’s recreational activities.  Parents and coaches can become fanatic at games and practices or demonstrate a lack of enthusiasm towards them.  They can force them to join a team or they can refuse their desires to play.  In interviewing Charles, he spoke of a moment he recalled from his son’s baseball-ball team where a father wouldn’t allow his son to play.

Charles: Some people are dedicated and some people aren’t.  Um, we try to teach our children that if you make a commitment, you need to be there.  We’ve seen our son’s baseball team, on a couple of occasions when he was younger, when he was playing the Dixie league ball or something like that before he got into junior high, we saw a couple times they had to forfeit a game because a couple of kids didn’t show up.  Parents divorced and one parent had custody of them and when his dad got him for the weekend he didn’t bring him to the games.  He had no participation in the sport.  He didn’t support his son in it and when he got custody of him, he was nowhere to be found.    


This was a case of a father who would no longer allow his son to play on a baseball team.  An example of the exact opposite took place in the soccer game with the girl named Sandra, who was victim to her coach’s aggressive words after a ball rolled past her and into the goal. 

Immediately after my arrival to the field, her father began yelling to her, “stay back on the ball.  Go get the ball,” and every time he did, he distracted her from the game.  She looked over each time throwing her arms up in the air, as if she were saying, ‘what do you want me to do now?’ 

The father’s constant distraction kept Sandra’s concentration off the game, and in my mind, contributed to her lack of defense as an opposing player kicked the ball past her and into the goal.  There could have been several meanings behind Sandra’s body language as she stood back and watched the ball roll in.  She may have been too flustered from her father’s tyrant antics to be able to think logically about the situation.  She could have purposefully let the ball pass her by to reclaim her pride after her father’s public humiliation act.  Or, she may not have fully developed the mental and physical skills needed to react quickly enough.  Regardless of the motive, this sort of behavior should not be tolerated in youth sports.

As stated earlier, one of the new trends today is to have the busiest child.  Parents cannot help but to compare their own children with others on and off the field.  It’s alright if this comparison is kept quiet between family members, but that is not always the case.  A girl named Amy told me a story from one of her high school softball games. 

At that point, she had recently switched positions from second baseman to catcher because her muscular arm would have benefited the team more in that position.  Due to her natural ability, she caught on quickly and the coaches put her in the games instead of their previous catcher.  The mother of the girl who previously caught was upset with the sudden change.  Amy recalls the conversation with her mother after that game.

Amy: But I remember one of the girls’ mothers saying something mean to my mom.  I was the catcher and so was this other girl, and my mom said that her mom came up to her and said something like, “you know, my daughter’s been catching a lot longer than yours and should be in instead of yours.”


There are several reasons how this statement could have affected the two athletes.  First off, making destructive comments like that during a game fills the air with a negative vibe.  After it was said, I’m sure neither of the mothers could concentrate on the game.  They probably focused on their own daughters’ highlights noting them in their entirety.  Secondly, the notion of competition probably consumed the girls’ minds more than their mothers.  Instead of competing against the opposing team, they had built a rivalry with each other, which eliminated their enjoyment.



In order to prevent situations such as this that can potentially put children in harms way, youth organizations must set up specific regulations and guidelines for parents, coaches, officials and players.  The first league in America to take this sort of action was Florida’s Jupiter/Tequesta Athletic Association (JTAA).  In February of 2000, this organization set up a mandatory ‘proper behavior’ course for the parents, and required them to sign a pledge before enrolling their children (Bigelow et al, 2001, p. 10).  This requirement would hopefully enlighten parents on the proper and improper ways of attending youth games and in the long run, reduce the amount of negativity on and off the field.

The National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) is currently America's leading advocate for positive and safe activities for children. Within this, the Parents Association for Youth Sports (PAYS) is an organization for parents involved in out-of-school youth sports. The program educates, motivates and holds PAYS members accountable to the Code of Ethics (NAYS, 2001, p. 2-3).  An example that is a little more close to home is the YMCA and Asheville Parks and Recreation of Western North Carolina

 These two organizations have taken the same route as the JTAA did five years ago.  Each athletic season the organizations hand out a collaborated guidebook with their mission statement and codes of conduct included in them.  Everybody is encouraged to support everybody and they all must keep in mind that the reason they are there is to have fun.  Another organization in this same area is South Buncombe Recreation (SBR). 

SBR has also added their own security measures in order to prevent negative behaviors from penetrating into the youth leagues.  This organization went one step further than the YMCA and Asheville Parks and Recreation of Western North Carolina by adding a Zero Tolerance policy.  Everyone, including the players, will be watched closely throughout each season. 

Their Zero Tolerance form states “Any parent, fan or coach demonstrating inappropriate behavior will be prohibited from participating or viewing any activities at South Buncombe Recreation or at any location where South Buncombe teams are competing.”  As for the children it states “any player on the field will be under the jurisdiction of the umpires in games where umpires are present.  Players ejected from the game will be punished according to the rules of the athletic area and subject to review by the South Buncombe Board of Directors for additional sanctions.”  These proclamations are very important additions to youth leagues. 

By informing people about the seriousness of the new regulations and by having them take courses and sign pledges in order to take part in the recreational activities, the fun factor may be able to once again take its reign.  Although this new system may have many positive attributes, it may also be a bit extreme.  I brought this topic up in an interview with Dan Robinson. 

Dan is the Athletic Director at a local sports facility.  He coordinates the organization of all the recreation leagues year round.  He mentioned that there is a Zero Tolerance Act but they don’t enforce it because they stress the importance of having parents attend games.


Dan: We do want the parents there, that’s really important, probably more so in today’s day and age with split families and people working double jobs, it’s just important to have support for kids, but we want them to be in their positive manner.    


Going off of that statement, I proceeded to inquire about any specific instances where a parent had been asked to leave due to his or her behavior.  With that, Dan recollected a case where this act did come into effect.

Dan: An example I can recall is one of a parent yelling at the official at a basketball game.  We asked them to leave, they weren’t real happy about it, but once someone’s asked to leave and they don’t, they’re trespassing.  We could have a warrant against them.  We don’t like to go there, and rarely do.  That parent actually came out onto the court to berate the official too.  Same thing’s happened with coaches with stuff like that.  Thankfully we don’t have a huge problem with it.


The location of the youth athletic facility, whether it’s in the suburbs or inner city, holds no bearing on what sort of protective measures should be taken.  Both the wealthy and the poor are capable of being positive and negative influences on their children.  While the Zero Tolerance Act at the Asheville Parks and Recreation center is rarely acted upon, it lets parents know their limits as spectators.

As regulations and requirements of training classes continue to spread nationwide, youth athletic leagues will hopefully return to the child-friendly version with which it was initiated.  Together, we can collectively strive to create a more pleasant atmosphere for our children, but in order to successfully accomplish this feat we need the cooperation of all the involved parents.  Here in which lies the complication. 

Everybody is brought up with different role models preaching certain beliefs.  Since it is human nature to stand by what you’ve been taught, this can create complications in forcing new rules and regulations on those individuals.  The ideal outcome would be to eliminate negative behaviors from youth athletics and allow the positive effects reign in the spotlight.  

With all the attention focused on negative occurrences in youth athletics, we tend to forget the beneficial impact parents have on our children.  There certainly are serious cases that shouldn’t be overlooked but we must also recognize the heartwarming stories that go untold.  There are many more heroes among us than there are villains.  As long as we keep this in mind and continue to protect our children through policies such as the Zero Tolerance Act, then we have one foot in the right direction.



We are a competitive nation, there’s no way around it.  Competition can be beneficial for some and harmful for others.  We have to have an appreciative respect for these separate groups and realize that everybody has their own aspirations in life and what you may want, they might disprove of.  Our nation needs more local role models who can work with children regardless of their views and skill level.  Sure, our children can look to the stars they see on TV for inspiration, but they would get more of a connection working with somebody one on one.  Children are a unique breed who need special attention.  In fact, “they are not miniature adults or high school stars in some kinds of larval stage.  They are children, with bones that have yet to develop, with minds that are not thinking the same way that we are thinking,” (Bigelow et al, 2001, p. 107-108).     

Through my research, interviews, and fieldwork, I’ve come to a somewhat better understanding of why negative behaviors have out competed the beneficial accomplishments that have taken place in youth athletics nation wide.  It’s no surprise that media sources feed off the detrimental occurrences for publicity reasons.  The adults in these situations make their emotions evident, whereas the majority of them calmly sit on the sidelines encouraging their children.

What I did find intriguing was the length and severity people took over something as minute as a strike out.  It’s incredible how the human mind is able to create such drastic thought variations over a source of child’s entertainment.  Although I did gain a lot by categorizing my adult motivations into social acceptance, parental roles, child activeness, experiential development and outside motivations, a more complex knowledge of human psychology may have been able to answer a lot of still unanswered questions I pose at this point.          






















Work Cited

1)      Bigelow, B., Moroney, T., & Hall, L. (2001). Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child’s Fun and Success in Youth Sports. Florida: Health Communications, Inc.

2)      Department of Health and Human Services. (2004). Secretary of Health and Human Services. Retrieved January 16, 2005, from

3)      Engh, F. (2002). Why Johnny Hates Sports: Why Organized Youth Sports are Failing our Children and What we Can do About it. New York: Square One Publishers.

4)      ERIC Identifier. (1989). Violence in Sports: ERIC Digest 1-89. Retrieved February 5, 2005, from

5)      Garner, R. (2000). Social Theory: Continuity & Confrontation. Canada: Broadview Press.

6)      Gatz, M., Messner, M.A., & Ball-Rokeach, S.J. (2002). Paradoxes of Youth and Sport. New York: State University of New York Press.

7)      Kohn, A. (1986). No Contest: The Case Against Competition; Why we Lose in our Race to Win. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

8)      Murphy, S. (1999). The Cheers and the Tears: A Healthy Alternative to the Dark Side of Youth Sports Today. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

9)      National Alliance for Youth Sports. (2001). National Alliance for Youth Sports. Retrieved February 3, 2005, from

10)  Parents. (2004). Promoting Social and Moral Development Through Sports. Retrieved March 3, 2005 from,

11)  Ryan, J. (1995). Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters. New York: A Time Warner Company.