• October 2017
    M T W T F S S

Youth Sports vs Vicarious Parental Athletics

More and more in today’s society childhood is fading away. Free play is no longer free – or perhaps even existent – as childhood days have become so heavily programmed that kids are only given the time to do that which their schedule allows. From school, Johnny hurries to trumpet lessons, rushes off to soccer practice, and arrives home after dinner just in time to spend several hours doing homework before bed. And this is only Monday. With each coming day, new activities embezzle Johnny’s free time. His parents had decided to enroll him in all of these stimulating activities in hopes that he would excel in at least one of them. With so many options, he is bound to be amazing at something, right? Anything less than amazing is unacceptable. These activities will not stop piling up until Johnny’s gifts are exposed and refined to magnificence. Sure, Johnny may have shown interest in each of these activities at the start, but when the pressure and stress began accumulating, the enjoyment began to fade. Content to be average at something he loves, perhaps basketball, Johnny’s parents found it unacceptable that he could not perform as Michael Jordan.

In such examples as Johnny (a pattern that has become far too prevalent in society), his life is overly programmed by his parents’ desires for greatness. As is often the case, kids are placed into exorbitant amounts of youth sports programs. Such programs are often applauded for their ability to spurn character development and instill an ethic of physical exercise, however, when the goals of personal development are lost, the value of the programs for children decreases. When youth sport is turned into vicarious parental athletics, personal child development is lost and the result is detrimental to the child.

What does this mean: Youth sport is turned into vicarious athletics? First, it is necessary to establish a rudimentary definition of both sport and athletics. Sport involves aspects of both physical activity and competition. Participants must exert physical energy as well as engage in some level of competition individually or on a team. Athletics, like sport, also involves physical activity and competition. At first glimpse, sport and athletics appear to be nearly identical.

The difference between sport and athletics, however, is not found in definition of the activity. The difference can only be found when the goals of the game are examined. Sport tends to focus more on fun, personal development of the participant, and on the mastery of skills and character development. “In this mastery-oriented condition, emphasis was on self-improvement through working at one’s own level and on task mastery” (Roberts, 2001, p. 89). Sport is more personalized than athletics.

Athletics adheres to goals that are more important than the personal goals of sport. Performance is more important than skill development. “In the performance-oriented condition, emphasis was on demonstrating competence through peer-performance and normative comparisons” (Roberts, 2001, p. 89). The goal, ultimately, is to perform better than the competition and to win at all costs.

With these definitions as a foundation, distinctions can be made between youth sport and vicarious parental athletics. The remaining terms (youth and vicarious parental) can now be defined. Youth sport focuses on personal character and skill development of each child participant while vicarious parental athletics takes on the performance goals of athletics as the parents attempt to win the game through the lives of their children. Once a beautiful stomping ground for youth to learn and flourish in sport, parents have stampeded fields and arenas snatching up and removing the benefits that their children once received.

In its origin, youth sports served as an engaging organization in which development was encouraged. Sport was used to teach youth about society and their roles within society. “The organizers hoped that sports, especially team sports, would teach boys from working-class families how to work together” (Coakley 128). Youth sport also provides valuable lessons for children. “Organized sports can be wonderful for children, keeping them away from the Xbox and other temptations, giving them exercise, and teaching valuable lessons about teamwork, discipline, and the ups and downs of winning and losing” (Honoré, 2008, p. 183). From the very beginning of organized sport, it has been used to encourage growth primarily in two developmental arenas: physical development and character development.

Physical development is an important factor of childhood and youth sport organizations provide settings for this development to occur. Sports help to refine both gross motor and fine motor skills. “They [children] may come to cherish and enhance themselves physically and integrate their physicality into their total being. Alternatively, without the proper influences they may come to ignore, neglect, or abuse this dimension of themselves” (Griffin, 1998, p. 23). With the very nature of sport being physical, organized youth programs simply provide opportunities for development to occur.

It is also widely recognized as important for children to maintain themselves in terms of physical fitness. Emphasizing the importance of physical fitness early on in life can help a child develop healthy, life-long fitness habits.

Despite common knowledge that exercise is healthful, more than 605 of American adults are not regularly active, and 25% of the adult population is not active at all. Moreover, although many people have enthusiastically embarked on vigorous exercise programs at one time or another, most do not sustain their participation. Clearly, the processes of developing and maintaining healthier habits are as important to study as the health effects of regular activity on these adults themselves (Butler, 2002, p. 9).

Such life-long habits can be established in a well-developed youth sports program whose goals hold physical and character development on a higher pedestal than winning.

With physical activity as a prerequisite of youth sports programs, these programs are substantial for the implementation of practice in physical fitness. These programs need to shine physical fitness in a light that can be shared by each participant. The disposition of physical fitness in youth sport is that it must be relevant to each participant. It needs to be replicable. The endowment of physical fitness upon youth must also correlate to their current knowledge of exercise sciences. If it is too complex or too simple to practice, it will be frustrating (Gisolfi and Lamb, 1989, p. 3).

Along with the life-long fitness habits that can be developed, youth sport also promotes character development within participants. While it is difficult to establish a concrete definition of character, many character traits can be established in sport. Honesty, self-discipline, sportsmanship, emotional stability, independence, teamwork, (Griffin, 1998, p. 55) and many other traits are some of the characteristics found in those who participate in sport. Now this is not to say that everyone who participates in sport will develop all, or even any, of these characteristics. Sport simply provides the opportunity for the development of these characteristics through physical competition.

All this to say, youth sport does not take average children and create superhuman beings who are developed to their physical maximums and who demonstrate the greatest human character. Youth sport, with its personalized goals, simply provides a safe environment for children to develop both physically and in character. Ultimately, the goal of youth sport is to enable the child to enjoy learning how to grow.

Youth sport programs do not necessarily have positive or neutral effects on all children. As each child comes to the program with their own personality, desires, and needs, there will be some programs that have negative effects on the participant. “Although the potential negative effects of sports do not seem to occur in most participating children, it is important to understand the characteristics of those who experience negative effects and why those effects occur” (Gisolfi and Lamb, 1989, p. 56).  Some children are just not meant to be in certain programs.

There are two key components to finding the right youth sports program for a specific child. First, it should be the child’s choice to participate in the program. Second, the child should enjoy the sport they are participating in. At first, the child may or may not know whether or not they want to participate in a given sport and it may take the prodding of parents to initiate participation. If the child, however, expresses their dissatisfaction with the program, it should be their choice whether or not to continue participating.

Children may show their distaste in any number of ways. Charles, a young boy, is enrolled in a Karate class that meets twice a week and he does not enjoy it. He takes the liberty to show his distaste for the program in many different ways. When he is told that it is time to get ready he often pouts and whines. Occasionally he will simply put his head down and resort to silence. His evening ritual of getting dressed takes nearly thirty minutes as he finds things to distract him from the task at hand. Sometimes he even bluntly says, “Oh man! I hate karate!” It is obvious that he does not enjoy karate.

Forcing a child to participate in a sport that they do not enjoy will produce negative effects of the program that appears to provide many benefits and proves that not all youth sport programs are beneficial to every child.

The notion that good parents today must control the actions of their children twenty-four hours a day and carefully promote and monitor their children’s development has changed parents’ lives over the past two generations. Many parents now feel compelled to find the best organized youth sport programs for their children and to actively ensure that their children’s interests are being met in those programs (Coakley, 2004, p. 136).

As is often the case, parents misinterpret what is beneficial in sport programs, thus creating negative outcomes. These negative effects are often embodied in unnecessary emotional stress.

Forced participation is not the only cause of stress in youth sport, however. “Stress can be exacerbated by peers, coaches, and parents” (Gisolfi and Lamb, 1989, p. 57). Especially when levels of competition rise, the desire to perform overtakes the desire to have fun. When the desire to play sport out of the love for the game dissolves and becomes the need to make others happy, the goal of youth sport is lost. The child is no longer participating in order to grow physically and in character. These goals are replaced by the goals of the performance and it is at this point when youth sport turns into vicarious parental athletics.

This is the dilemma that most youth sport organizations fight today. Parents are becoming too involved in the programs and are largely concerned with the participation and, more importantly, the success of the child and team. It is these parents who have instilled the performance ethic into youth sports and have removed the fun of personal development from sport. “It is true that adults are more involved in children’s sports – logistically and emotionally – than ever before” (Honoré, 2008, p. 182). These sports have become overly serious in the lives of everyone involved – the child, parents, coaches, other family members – and sport has suddenly morphed into athletics (Coakley, 2004, p. 131).

Author Carl Honoré writes about the pressures on parents to make sure their children succeed. “Today,” he says, “the pressure to make the most of our kids feels all-consuming. We want them to have the best of everything and to be the best at everything. We want them to be artists, academics, and athletes, to glide through life without hardship, pain, or failure” (Honoré, 2008, p. 3). It is often the media that influences parents conceptions of what is best for their child. Bombarded with images of spectacular children, every parent wants their child to be recognized for being gifted.

The media has helped to foster the rat-race atmosphere. Each time another ten-year-old novelist, teenaged entrepreneur, or pre-pubescent pop band hits the headlines, the bar is raised, making “average” look a lot less acceptable. In the past, prodigies were often portrayed as a bit freakish. Today they are hailed as the gold standard, proof that all that pushing and polishing actually works – and that if you weren’t such a slouch you could have a superchild, too. (Honoré, 2008, p. 27).

When such media pressure is placed on parents, it is often relinquished by being handed down onto the child who is expected to perform at extreme levels.

As the media informs parents that they have failed as parents if their children are not gifted, parents attempt to live, or relive, athletic experiences through their child. This is how parents begin to vicariously compete in athletics at the level of youth sport. Vicarious participation occurs in two major ways; through reliving past glories and believing that “I am my child” (Thompson, 1995, p. 197).

The first large component of this vicarious participation is the reliving of personal sport glories. As avid fans of sport, parents had often participated in sports like their children. Some of them were lucky enough to experience the heroics of sport. Perhaps they hit a walk-off home run to win a game in the bottom of the ninth or saved a penalty kick in a soccer game that came down to a decision by shoot-out. “My moments of glory have been quite few and modest,” writes Jim Thompson. “Many people haven’t had any. In either case, there is the doomed hope that one can live again or for the first time that glorious glory through one’s child” (Thompson, 1995, p. 197). Whatever the heroic experience, parents want, and expect, their children to have the same opportunity to be called a hero.

The second component of vicarious participation is accepting that, as the parent, “I am my child.” In a scenario such as this, the parent identifies so much with their child that it is personally denigrating when the child fails to perform at optimum levels.

It is these methods of vicariously participating in youth sports that are denigrating to the child who is actually participating. The performance expectations are raised to insurmountable levels and failure is impending, yet unexpected and unacceptable. For these reasons, youth sport organizations have become dangerous for young participants rather than being beneficial as they once were.

The shift from personally beneficial youth sport programs to competitive, vicarious parental athletics has been detrimental to the reputation of youth organizations (and not to mention the reputations of the child participants and their families). Once uniquely valuable to each participant, these programs have become indwelt with the perversion of win-at-all-cost parents who have elevated sport to unhealthy levels of seriousness. Sport is meant to be fun, no matter the age of the participant, and when fun is removed from the game, the developmental benefits are removed as well.

Like too many children, Johnny’s experience with youth sport programs has not been the fantastic adventure that it was originally intended to be. Largely due to the transformation of youth sport into the media-inspired forum of vicarious parental athletics, Johnny has missed out on a potentially poignant developmental opportunity. Sadly, this is the turn that society has taken in youth sports and the original appeal of sport rewards has been snatched out of the grasp of children.


Works Cited

Butler, L. F. (2002). Teaching Lifetime Sports. Westport: Bergin and Garvey.

Coakley, J. (2004). Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies.

New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Gisolfi, C. V., Lamb, D. R. (1989). Perspectives in Exercise Science and Sports Medicine: Volume 2 Youth, Exercise, and Sport.

Carmel: Benchmark Press, Inc.

Griffin, R. S. (1998). Sports in the Lives of Children and Adolescents: Success on the Field and in Life.

Westport: Praeger Publishers.

Honoré, C. (2008).  Under Pressure: Rescuing our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting.

New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Roberts, G. C. (2001). Advances in Motivation in Sport and Exercise. Champaign: Human Kinetics.

Thompson, J. (1995). Positive Coaching: Building Character and Self-Esteem Through Sports.

Portola Valley: Warde Publishers, Inc.

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