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  • Writer's pictureEmily Gursky

A parent and athlete weigh in: how does outside pressure affect athletes?

By: Emily Gursky

Participating in sports can be extremely beneficial to kids. Sports can help them be active, develop friendships and encourage positive self-esteem. With sports, though, comes a certain amount of pressure placed on athletes from adults involved in hopes of helping them succeed.

A recent study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests that pressure like this can sometimes do more harm than good. Authors of the study found that parents should "avoid being overly critical of—or hyper-involved in—how [kids] play the game."

Jen Gursky, mom of three kids who each played multiple sports growing up, would agree with this concept. Once, she watched a swim team parent berate her 9-year-old son for his performance in a race, bringing him to tears—an incident she says still affects her to this day, which is why she's always tried only to encourage her kids to have fun and do their best.

"I never thought it was beneficial to bring up how they could have done better after a meet," she said. "They knew it themselves."

Mount Saint Mary College graduate Chris Lane, 24, has played sports since he could walk—including soccer, wrestling, and lacrosse. But, for him, he feels that the pressure he faced from coaches and family actually helped him, for the most part.

"I definitely had some mental battles with it," Lane said, "but you just learn to tough your way through it and learn to adjust, which is the best thing sports have taught me."

Still, Lane recognizes that this may not be the case for all athletes, especially since levels of anxiety and other mental health challenges are at an unprecedented level in the U.S. Kids are also leaving sports now more than ever. In fact, 70 percent of kids quit sports by the age of 13, according to a poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports. For those who stick with it, their relationship with their particular sport can change over the years.

"Rather than something to do for fun," Lane says, "sports are very much tied to my identity now."

There's one country who's had success in athletics on the world's stage, but with a vastly different approach to youth sports than what Americans are used to. In Norway, they put kids in control and minimize the "win-at-all-costs" mentality in a few ways—these include allowing kids to choose how often they practice/compete and not publishing team rankings before athletes turn 11.

As a parent, Gursky admires this format and that "the goal of sports seems to be whatever benefits the athletes. We need more of that approach."

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