Teaching Values through Youth and Adolescent Sports

By Lumpkin, Angela | Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, March-April 2008 | Go to article overview

Teaching Values through Youth and Adolescent Sports


Lumpkin, Angela, Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators


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For decades, sport in the United States has been praised for reflecting the values of society and touted for instilling these values in athletes. Some parents believe that values such as cooperation, fair play, learning how to win and lose, self-discipline, and teamwork are instilled in young people through participation in sports. Many coaches of youth and adolescent teams support the belief that sports teach values. Yet incidents of unsportsmanlike conduct, cheating, and other unethical behaviors in sports are too common. Unfortunately it is not only at the professional or collegiate levels that you find these behaviors. They have now saturated youth and adolescent sports as well.

Bredemeier and Shields (1985) use the term "bracketed morality" to describe the rationalization used by athletes and coaches in defending unethical behaviors within the context of sport. Mimicking the highly publicized professional model, many coaches are showing their players that winning by any means necessary is acceptable.

Parents can sometimes add fuel to the fire. Too often parents are fixated on their children's potential for athletic success, and the perks that come with it (e.g., collegiate scholarships, multi-million dollar professional contracts, or Olympic gold medals). Although these are elusive goals for most, many parents still choose to invest heavily in sports opportunities for their children in the hopes they will become elite athletes.

This article briefly identifies several issues in youth and adolescent sports and proposes alternate ways to address them--starting with the development and implementation of an athlete-centered philosophy. Additionally, this article describes the goals for youth and adolescent sports; discusses what the moral values of parents, coaches, and athletes should be in sporting contexts; and concludes with suggestions for enhancing the sport experiences of youth and adolescent athletes.

Goals of Youth and Adolescent Sports

A major reason why youths and adolescents should participate in sports is to have fun. Youth sports should also help children develop skills and friendships, as well as be physically fit. They can also teach values, give children something constructive to do, and enhance extracurricular experiences in schools. The goals for adolescent athletes include enhancing sports skills and physical fitness, being part of a team, and gaining a sense of personal achievement.

Issues of Concern

The Citizenship Through Sports Alliance (2006) published the Youth Sports National Report Card in which a panel of experts evaluated community-based youth sports programs throughout the United States and gave the following grades: child-centered philosophy (D); coaching (C); health and safety (C+); officiating (B-); and parental behavior/involvement (D). This report suggests that youth sports have lost their child-centered focus; suffered from the actions of over-invested parents; and focused on early sports specialization. This analysis and the inappropriate actions of coaches and parents should sound an alarm that youth and adolescent sports are at risk of causing more harm than good. Murphy (1999) goes so far to argue that a crisis exists:

But over the years, I have seen increasing evidence of a dark side of youth sports. Burned-out teenage athletes, exploited athletes, troubled families, young athletes with eating disorders, coach-parent conflicts, abusive parents--all are indicators of a deep and continuing problem in youth sports. And as youth sports programs have increased in popularity, the problems seem only to have worsened and become endemic. The longer I spend in the field as a sport psychologist, the more I learn about the potential harm that can be created by participation in youth sports. I believe that we are facing a crisis for our children, and for ourselves. It is time to stop hiding behind the cliche that sports for children are wonderful character builders, and time to find a way to reduce the problems.

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