Grand Rapids Family — October 2009
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Pressure To Perform
John Kalmar

Playing sports is a great way for kids to have fun and stay active.

Playing on a team or competing against others adds excitement to the mix.

But overuse injuries and parental pressure can sidetrack what should be a positive experience.

“We love our kids. We also love winning,” said Dr. Eddie O’Connor, sports psychologist at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. “So we love our kids winning. But that love can lead us to behave in ways that can hurt their development and ruin our relationship with them.” For example, he said, yelling instructions from the sidelines or having unrealistic expectations can have negative consequences.

O’Connor referenced a national survey of young athletes, ages 10-18, who were asked why they participated in sports. The top three responses were to have fun, to develop their skills and to stay in shape.

Winning ranked 10th.

“Any time fun is sacrificed — like turning a game of catch into a practice opportunity — it sends the message to the child that ‘I have to perform well for my parents’ approval,’” said O’Connor.

“The more parents invest in their child’s sport, such as money and time, the more these expectations can rise.” The physical pressures that accompany sports can also have detrimental effects. Overtraining, intense competition, or specializing in one sport can lead to overuse injuries and may hinder a child’s physical development.

Dr. Jeff Cassidy, an orthopedic surgeon with Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, has witnessed injuries resulting from intense training and specialization.

“Overuse, which is a chronic injury that occurs from being too focused in one sport, is something we see too much of nowadays,” he said. “This can be anything, like stress fractures or tendonitis.” Different sports work different muscles, so participating in a balanced sports regimen will help prevent or limit injuries that come from overuse. When children play one sport year round, their bodies don’t have enough time to rest the specific muscle areas being used.

“The weather in Michigan is beneficial for kids because they can’t play outdoors year round,” said Cassidy. “It’s Less of a problem here than in the south, because it forces kids to participate in other sports that are not outdoors.” As long as it’s done in moderation and parents and coaches don’t push them too hard, Cassidy feels that there is no age too young for kids to start playing sports.

To avoid self-imposing pressures and to encourage good sportsmanship and mental resiliency, kids should start learning early to accept mistakes.

“Success is defined by giving maximum effort and personal improvement, not wins and losses,” agreed O’Connor.

“Emphasize the internal rewards of playing the game, and create a practice environment where mistakes are encouraged.” Mistakes are not a sign of regression; they are a sign of progression. Parents should encourage their kids to make and learn from mistakes. If a child is afraid of making mistakes, they may lose their focus and ultimately make more mistakes in the long run. This can also lead to tentativeness of play or decreased performance.

“Honest mistakes must be encouraged as a sign of development and pushing the limits to be improved,” said O’Connor.

“They have to know that it’s OK to make honest mistakes, and that they’re not the same as making mistakes because of a lack of effort or if they’re not paying attention.” As an example, he recounted a situation where he was playing catch with his 8-year-old son. As his son caught the ball, his confidence grew, so O’Connor gradually made the throws a little more difficult. As his son began to miss the ball, his smile and effort were gone. It was evident he wasn’t having fun.

“I went up to him and said, ‘I want you to make a mistake,” said O’Connor. “He gave me this look like I was crazy, but I told him, ‘I’m disappointed if you’re not making mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.’ After that talk, the afternoon was saved.” Teaching kids about mental toughness is an important foundation to lay as they grow up and begin to place more emphasis on winning. Kids want to be competitive and win, but it’s the responsibility of the parents to enforce the internal rewards of sports, not just the outcomes.

“A lot of times, parents can take the fun out of it, making it a job,” said O’Connor. “Saying: ‘Let’s go practice’ — ooh, that’s not fun. Instead try, ‘Let’s go play.’”