Are Competitive Sports Bad for Kids?

With 7.7 million teens on high school sports teams and millions more children in club sports for all ages, kids are involved in competitive sports now more than ever. But experts caution that the current level of involvement and specialization in sports is leading to increased injuries, stress and burnout, and changes need to be made to bring youth sports back to the safe and fun learning activities they are meant to be.

Young girl holding a sports trophy. (Image: Barry Austin/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Growth of Competitive Sports

According to Hilary Levey Friedman, author of "Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture," competitive sports took off in the 1960s when college admissions became more competitive and parents were looking for a way to set their children apart in the application process. Since then, the desire to help kids' self-esteem has played a role, as well as the possibility of sports-related scholarships, the boost to parents' egos from successful kids and parental anxiety about children being "left behind" by their sporty peers.

Injuries and Side Effects

Dr. Paul Stricker, a pediatric and adolescent sports-medicine specialist and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine & Fitness, finds that today's children athletes are suffering from injuries due to overuse and acute trauma which used to be seen only in adults. Much of this is from focusing on a single sport which uses repetitive motions, and from training too intensely at a young age. In addition, many child athletes are feeling stress and exhaustion, according to, and others are burning out on favorite sports or even sports in general. High frustration levels can also be found -- in children under 10 especially -- who are trying to play a sport for which they are not yet developmentally ready.

Warning Signs

Parents with kids in competitive sports should be aware of the possible problems associated with young athletes and step in to help when needed. A child who feels sick or has trouble sleeping before a game might be over-stressed and need to cut back on activities. If your child continually finds reasons to miss practice, he might be afraid to say he wants to stop with a sport, so be open to discussing the matter. Your young athlete might also display physical symptoms such as favoring one arm or leg over the other, which could indicate a possible injury. Be sure to have your pediatrician check him and have him take a break from his sport to allow proper healing time.

A New Look at the Game

Kept within reason, competitive sports are not all bad for kids, especially those 11 and older; kids involved in sports usually do better in school, are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, have good relationships with peers and have better health overall. Help your child enjoy the benefits and fun by allowing her to explore various sports while monitoring her health and stress levels, and by staying realistic in expectations, keeping an eye on coaches' demands and talking to your child about her enjoyment of the game rather than about winning.

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