Developing a youth athlete is an art. Coaches need to educate, instruct and encourage, while parents must support their young athlete's goals and dreams. Problem is, this equation often breaks down, negatively affecting the development of the athlete and ultimately diminishing his or her enjoyment of the game.
STACK spoke to Dr. Joe Taravella, licensed clinical psychologist and Supervisor of Pediatric Psychology at NYU Langone Medical Center, about how parents and coaches can work together to improve a youth athlete's sport experience and performance.
STACK: Do you find that coaches and parents are too hard on young athletes?
Dr. Taravella: Many student-athletes are innately competitive, while others are more dependent on their coaches to drive them toward the dream of winning and being the best. Regardless of the reasons why, kids sports have become more competitive, and statistics indicate that one third of young players are sidelined due to injuries. For many coaches, winning is the goal, but when combined with unsafe training methods, the emotional and physical demands placed on young athletes are dangerous and harmful. Today's kids are playing younger and harder, and the success and high-level competition on the fields can come with a price that's not worth the payoff.
What problems arise from placing too much pressure on a developing athlete?
We hope for young athletes to be their best, but parents and coaches need to recognize that what's best for them is different each and every day. When increased pressure is put on athletes—especially at younger ages—they hit emotional and physical burnout, which often leads to unnecessary physical injuries as well as emotional distress. Also, a young athlete may change his or her eating habits to foster success in their sports. An older youth may experiment with steroids for optimal performance due to the increased pressure to be the best and win at all costs.
How can an athlete deal with this pressure?
I recommend athletes talk about their goals and dreams, and create a plan of action. After weighing out the pros and cons of team sports, or realizing the dream of playing collegiate or pro sports may not come to fruition, many kids need to find ways to cope with the disappointment and re-align their dreams for their future. Some will get turned off to sports, while others prefer to play even if they are on a losing team, rather than to be benched on a winning team.
Many athletes are afraid of tough coaches. What should an athlete do in this situation?
Dr. Taravella: We are hopeful that a young athlete will verbalize his or her needs, but if this is too challenging with a tough coach, then other adults (parents, teachers, etc.) can take a team approach and set up a meeting to speak with the coach. Young athletes can ask for constructive feedback from their coach to help them develop their skills and learn to be a better player and teammate. Oftentimes, and especially with younger athletes, they are not sure what to expect regarding their role in team sports along with the expectations of the coach.
Should parents play a role in this situation? How do they do so without making it worse?
Parents must play a role by continuing to protect their young athlete and let them know they are there to help and guide them along the way. Parents may put a lot of trust in a coach, but they should not do so blindly. While there are many wonderful coaches, parents should keep their eyes out for coaches who engage in institutional bullying, which includes verbal, emotional and physical abuse. There needs to be conversations, primarily about the importance of the safety of their young athlete.
Parents should be informed with the plan of action for the players and team, and what the policy and procedures are regarding safety of players and what happens when someone is injured. And at the end of the day, parents and coaches should balance their expectations of their athletes. Parents should listen to their athlete, looking for signs of problems and distress, and for coaches to apply their expertise to each child based on their age, goals, experience, and skill.
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