Feb. 1, 2024

Researchers at NDSU find that resetting approach to youth sports could have positive lifelong impact


Research from NDSU published in Routledge Sport Studies shows that when it comes to youth sports, promoting overall physical, mental and social wellness plays a pivotal role.

Researchers Sean Brotherson, professor and Extension family science specialist in Human Development and Family Science, graduate student Beckham Arthur in Developmental Science, and Brad Strand, professor in Sport Management, found that how coaches and parents engage and support youth may be more important than other aspects of youth sports.

The published article focuses on a framework called “positive youth development” to build outcomes such as resilience, health, competence, coping and wellbeing through sports.

“This is particularly important in a time when such outcomes can be overshadowed by an emphasis on highlight plays, trash talk toward opponents, or winning at any cost,” said Brotherson. “Working with young people and coaching them in sports with a positive youth development approach helps to avoid negative experiences in sport activity and focuses on positive relationships they will remember and healthy life skills like communication and teamwork that apply to all areas of their lives.”

“Youth sports is currently a $20 billion industry and is expected to be over $77 billion in just a few years,” said Strand. “With such financial investments by athletes, parents, and families, the outcome is often expected to be a big pay-off in terms of playing time, scholarships, and professional contracts. Far too many people have lost perspective of what youth sport is supposed to be about; that is, positive experiences for all children that lead to a lifetime of being physically active.”

In some settings, a “winner take all” attitude is palpable. “Athletes, coaches, parents, sports leagues and local communities often struggle with what ought to be most prioritized in youth sports, although the primary reason young people engage in sports is to have fun,” according to the article published by Arthur, Brotherson and Strand.

“The most direct way to successfully integrate the positive youth development approach into youth sports is to support implementing it as the primary model for coaching efforts with youth at all levels,” explained Brotherson.

Earlier research by Strand showed that there may be additional benefits to this method. “Using a positive youth development approach in youth sport can aid in reducing overuse injuries and extend positive involvement, including competition at higher levels into adulthood,” according to the article.

The researchers found that using a positive youth development approach helps to reset priorities and expectations for how youth engage in sports. Use of the positive youth sports development approach supports youth wellness and helps young people on a track that will make their engagement in youth sports a lasting positive experience.

“Despite some inherent hazards, sports remain one of the best avenues for promoting all-around youth well-being when managed properly,” said Arthur.

Strand, Brotherson and Arthur acknowledge that sports specialization, financial costs of participating, time commitments, and students vying for sports scholarships or contracts places pressure on athletes, families and coaches. Ultimately, the researchers’ findings suggest that although providing a positive youth sports experience in a system that focuses on competitive skill and winning can be challenging, positive gains can be made.

Modeling coaching centered on instruction and demonstration rather than harsh punishment for mistakes in sport, providing consistent feedback on different approaches when needed, and supporting development of life skills can help youth develop skills that can be transferred to lifelong experiences, said the researchers.

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