As a parent, we want our kids to be the best they can be. But when it comes to youth sports, putting too much pressure on them can have serious repercussions.

By Angela Anagnost-Repke
Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Sitting on the sidelines, I watch my 7-year-old son play travel soccer. Some games get intense. Not by the little feet kicking the ball on the field, or even their coach on the bench, but because of the parents. I have seen my son's coach, who is usually always poised, huddle the parents together after a game. "You have to stay calm, guys," he says. "Remember, when you yell, the kids get rattled, and then lose what little composure they had."

As a parent, we want what's best for our children and to be the best they can be. But as Justin Ocwieja, youth developmental director of the Nationals Genesee Soccer Program in Michigan, a travel soccer league, says, "We need to remember that they're kids—and they're still developing." Ocwieja, who has been coaching in the program for 10 years, says he's seen an increase in the intensity of the level of play for children, but also an increase in parental involvement. "It's good for parents to be involved in their child's development, but sometimes parents can push their children too hard,” he says.

Doing that can have serious repercussions. Intense pressure in youth athletics doesn’t only negatively impact a child’s sports experience—it can also taint other aspects of their life. When parents make the sport seem like work, says Ocwieja, the child is going to look at it the same way and likely push away from the developmental process.

Haley Sztykiel, LMSW, SSW, agrees. "They miss out on all the other important moments and opportunities that come from playing a sport—forming friendships, working as team, building personal self-esteem,” says Sztykiel, whose first seven years as a social worker were spent within Detroit Public Schools where she saw several young children dealing with the stress that came with playing club sports.

Pressure in sports can be dangerous

About 45 million kids are involved in organized youth sports in the United States. And there can be tons of benefits for these children, including a healthier lifestyle, increased academic achievement, and reduction in suicidal thoughts for both girls and boys, according to a report published in Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine.

But as studies showing the benefits increase—right along with college tuition making a scholarship even more appealing—so does parental pressure. This can lead to opposite effects like taking the fun and love out of a game. About 70 percent of young athletes leave organized sports by the time they hit middle school simply because they are no longer having fun, according to research from George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Stress levels can also skyrocket. About 20 percent of soccer players experience high stress levels before and after a game—especially if they suffered from a loss, according to a report from Ohio University. And as Sztykiel saw many times, the pressure to be great can trickle into other facets of a child's life, including the classroom where they may develop a need to earn good grades on every test. Even worse, if they don't excel, they won't learn how to recover from that. "Hard work ethic should be applauded," says Sztykiel, "but not perfection."

Further, she saw children's self-worth became wrapped up in their specialized sport—not their overall life. This can also cause burnout down the line, says Ocwieja. “I’ve seen burnout more in the older age groups, like 12-13 years old, because they started specializing in one sport at a young age,” he says. Letting kids engage in another sport to serve as a “break” can help prevent that.

The harm can also be physical with sports injuries taken to another level. There are about 2.6 million visits to emergency rooms for sports-related injuries each year for those aged 5 to 24. And the Ohio University report explains many young athletes feel pressured to continue to play even when they are hurt.

How parents can ease the pressure

Experts say the most important thing parents can do is let the coaches, coach, and offer support and encouragement. That should be the case no matter what the outcome of the game is. If a kid is losing every game, but still having a blast, leave it at that.

Asking questions and being there for your kid if they seem upset after a loss is also important. But experts advise curbing your own expectations. "Parents should have constant conversations about how their kids are feeling. Give them the support that they need—different from what a coach could offer,” says Sztykiel. “Above all, try not to idolize sports and make it their life." As parents, it’s vital that we remember the root of playing a sport: having fun.

My husband and I have taken note and learned to simply serve as a sounding board and cheerleaders. If my son's team loses or he suffers from a bad game, when he hops in the car, I simply ask, "What did you think of the game?" He usually just shrugs his shoulders and says, "It was okay. Can we go out to eat now?" And I leave it at that. When he plays well, whether he scores or not, we try to celebrate that, too. "It's important to applaud the effort. That way, they can carry that effort into everything they do,” says Sztykiel. No, we don't buy him an actual reward, but give encouragement to help promote his intrinsic motivation. And Sztykiel strongly advises parents to avoid rewards or punishment after a win or loss.

As a parent with children in sports, I try to think back to the way things were when I was a kid and played soccer and basketball. I remember the joy from the sports I played flowed through me and my effort was intrinsic. I loved the feeling of adrenaline when I had a good game. That's all I hope for my own two small who both play sports. So, in the meantime, I'll let their coaches, coach—and let my kids be kids. I'll applaud and be a listening ear when they're ready to talk. I'll show them how to work through the disappointment that sports can bring. Because I know that if I do my part, and let everyone else do theirs, my children will not only flourish but flourish with joy.

Angela Anagnost-Repke is a writer and writing instructor dedicated to raising two empathetic children. She has been published in Good Morning America, Romper, ABC News, Parents, Literary Mama, the anthology Red State Blues by Belt Publishing, among others. Angela is currently at work on the cross-generational memoir, Mothers Lie.  

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