The outcome of a game in the 1995 Maryland state tournament for Babe Ruth baseball illustrates what can happen when pressure overtakes fun. The Bethesda-Chevy Chase Thunder faced the Blue Jays from Libertytown. When the two teams had played before, the Blue Jays shut out Thunder, 14-0, Bethesda coach Bob Procelli recalls. But in the third inning of the tournament match-up, Thunder was holding a 7-4 lead -- and the Blue Jays' parents and coaches were frantic. "They were yelling all kinds of things at those kids, really riding them," Procelli says. And when the Blue Jays came back to win, 10-7, "those kids weren't cheering," Procelli says. "It was more like, 'What a relief -- we can go home without getting chewed out.' " The players on both teams were 8-year-olds.
Such high expectations can wreak damage long before a child quits sports. Parents' poor behavior can undo even the best Knute Rockne lectures about sportsmanship. "Kids will heed what you do, not what you say," says sports science professor Daniel R. Gould, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "You may be trying to teach your kids to be emotionally controlled. But what they learn is that when you're an adult, you can go crazy."
In extreme cases, pressure can make kids ill. Some 5% to 8% of young athletes, Dr. Gould estimates, exhibit the classic symptoms of anxiety and burnout -- headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension. These same kids can suffer from psychological problems as well: "Too often, parents see their young athlete only as a home-run hitter or a goalie and not as a child," says sports psychologist Darrell J. Burnett, Ph.D., of Laguna Niguel, CA. "The kid's total worth and identity is tied in with athletics -- and she's only as good as her next game." Instead of building self-esteem, her talent undermines it.