Competitive sports participation opportunities for children continue to grow. Nowadays, children begin their regular sport participation between the ages of 4 to 8 years. Most children enjoy sports and show great enthusiasm for participation. However, the situation changes when young athletes get involved in the elite-level championships organized and directed by adults. Children's play becomes transformed from informal playground games to highly organized sporting events that mirror adult professional sports.
The effects of such intensive training and participation in elite-level competition on young athletes have been investigated. However, most of the research has been devoted to athletes above 10 years of age who are involved in individual sports. Little has been done to explore the impact of the elite-level competition on children under 10 years old participating in team sports.
Indeed, the idea that organized, supervised athletic competition benefits pre-pubertal children is very controversial. However, since more and more pre-adolescent children are getting involved in sports, a stance either for or against competition for the child is not the concern. The important issues that have to be considered are:
Are children ready for the elite-level competition?
Can coaches, parents and administrators provide a safe and healthy competitive environment and quality supervision?
Do children need national championships to enjoy their participation in sports?
This position paper summarizes the latest available information and addresses current issues regarding national team competition for children less than 10 years of age.
Children's Readiness for Organized Sports and Competition
Medical, physical, cognitive, emotional and psychosocial components of children's development should be considered to evaluate the readiness of young athletes for intensive athletic training and competition.
The issue of preadolescent participation in competitive athletics is complex, and from a medical perspective, there appear to be both benefits, as well as potential drawbacks, to children aged 10 or younger playing in a national volleyball championship. Apparent advantages include physiologic training / health benefits from participation in a "lifetime" sport, as well as enhanced motor / skill development (which may theoretically increase the size of the future elite athlete pool). Conversely, there are also a number of disadvantages to promoting such competition.
Research has demonstrated there are adverse physiological consequences from intense physical training, including delayed menarche and an increased risk of overuse injuries to immature musculoskeletal systems. Repetitive motion can cause premature closure of long bone growth plates and stress fractures are more common in juveniles than adults. Although one might assume that a non-contact sport like volleyball might be a 'safe' activity, Backx reported that among Dutch pre-teen children participating in sport, volleyball had the highest injury rate during practice (1991).
The American Academy of Pediatrics has studied the issue of youth and sport, as has the World Health Organization in conjunction with the International Federation of Sports Medicine.
The WHO / FIMS position paper states: "There is growing evidence that excessive...and intensive training may increase the rate of overuse and catastrophic injuries" (6). In its 1989 position paper, the AAP wrote: "The important objective...should be to enhance the child's self-image. Mastery of the sport should be emphasized, instead of winning or pleasing others. Athletic programs should de-emphasize playoffs..." (583). Importantly, it is the emphasis on winning that has been postulated to account for the dramatic decline in athletic participation as children age.
The MRAT therefore makes the following recommendations:
1. Any USAV-sanctioned program for the age 10 and under category should emphasize participation and general motor/skill development rather than winning, losing and sport specialization.
2. Preadolescents participating in volleyball activities should use developmentally appropriate equipment and rules.
3. We recommend against a national team championship per se, but would suggest as an alternative that a "skills challenge" program be given consideration.
Generally, young athletes grow and develop normally. As a result of regular physical activity, they demonstrate superior heart function, some gains in isomatic strength, enhanced neurological adaptations and improved body composition compared to their non-athletic peers. However, with the trend toward highly competitive athletics at a younger age, there is the potential hazard of an increasing number of sport-specific and overuse injuries of the immature skeletal and neuromuscular systems caused by many ambitious coaches' tendencies to overtrain children for competition.
The ability to learn motor skills and the rate at which a child progresses in mastering these skills differ with each child. Young athletes should not be forced to practice and perform motor skills that are too advanced for their level of physical development.
A distinguishing feature of pre-adolescence is a child's strong, self-centered view, which facilitates individual performance, but complicates participation in team sports. Young children have difficulty understanding that a team is composed of interdependent positions that must simultaneously respond to one another and opposing player's movements. Children can successfully cope with activities that allow them sufficient time to get ready. They more easily respond to a fixed object of static environment in situations that permit them to move at their own rates of speed and time and readiness. Sports such as volleyball, which require anticipation, short decision-making time and prompt response adapted to the various situations, are too complex for children of this age group (Scates 1975). All these conclusions indicate that children cannot and should not play an adult version of the game. The nature of the game must be modified to match young athletes' cognitive abilities.
Generally, younger children experience less anxiety (feeling of distress) about casual sports participation (e.g., playground games) because they have not become as aware as older children of the competitive nature of these situations. However, younger athletes experience more trait anxiety than older athletes do in structured sport settings in which competition is explicit (Foster 1980). Important competitive events, because of a great emphasis on winning, put so much pressure on children that some of them drop out of sport.
Research suggests that for young children, high performance scores may have more to do with heredity and maturity than personal accomplishment. Some children may not be successful competitors simply because of their inadequate maturity level. Repeated failures may have a detrimental psychological effect on developing young athletes and result in low self-esteem, depression, excessive anxiety, burnout, serious injuries and re-injuries (Burnett 1993). As a result, these athletes who might be very talented could withdraw from sport before they reach their potential and without further attempt to return to a particular sport.
Children's main motives to participate in sports and compete are:
* to have fun;
* to improve skills;
* to be with friends; and * to improve health and fitness.
Some of the major reasons for dropouts are:
* overemphasis on winning;
* not having fun;
* stress of competition; and * disliking the coach.
Adult Readiness for Children's Competition
Adults involved in sport programs and national and international competition for children have a responsibility to ensure that children's happy participation is not jeopardized by unrealistic adult expectations and an overemphasis on winning. It is imperative that adults make the distinction between encouraging children to gain satisfaction from doing their best and pushing children beyond their capabilities and levels of interest.
Coaches should be certified to work with pre-adolescent athletes to prevent problems such as abusive coaching; overemphasis on winning; withdrawal of a child from the team or benching permanently because of supposed lack of ability; mismatching for physical size and maturation when grouping children for competition; appropriate volume and intensity of training to avoid injuries due to excessive training; and many others. Preparation of coaches should include courses and coaching experiences that pertain specifically to the coaching of pre-adolescent athletes.
* Coaches should emphasize health, fitness and skill development; promote cooperation and sportsmanship; teach the right sense of values; encourage efforts and individual and team achievements; and create a fun and supportive atmosphere.
* Coaches should discourage children from learning inappropriate values and behavior (hostility, violence, winning at all costs, etc.).
* Coaches should provide a variety of activities and playing positions for each child within the sport. Specialization in a particular position should be avoided since it creates a narrowly developed and focused athlete.
* Coaches should explain to children the concept of competition and the difference between winning and success, losing and failure.
* Coaches should focus on performance rather than outcome to measure their team's success. For some coaches, winning becomes too important. The only indication of their success is a winning season. There should be a greater emphasis on setting and accomplishing personal and team performance goals. This will make the program truly successful.
* Coaches should actively communicate with parents, educate them about all aspects of training (physical, cognitive, psycho-social, nutritional, et. al.) and competition, and explain the beneficial role of adults in a child's athletic career.
(Misheli & Jenkins 1990)
Parents influence their children's involvement in physical activity and sport through demonstrated behaviors (e.g., encouragement), communication of enjoyment and an emphasis on achievement goal orientations.