Talking with U of M

Talking youth sports with U of M

Girls Baseketball team and Professor Maureen Weiss

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the National Youth Sports Strategy. It is a federal report outlining the benefits and barriers of youth sport participation and offering strategies for increasing rates to promote physical activity and health benefits. 

School of Kinesiology Professor Maureen Weiss, Ph.D., specializes in youth sports research, and shares why a National Youth Sports Strategy is important, and what it might mean to you and your children. 

Q: What are three things you need to know about the National Youth Sports Strategy?
Prof. Weiss: It is an initiative, similar to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, that seeks to improve participation rates among youth to enable benefits afforded from participation, such as increased physical activity levels, cognitive health, and social and emotional skills.

A particular focus is on underserved and vulnerable populations — youth of color, youth of low income families, youth living in rural communities, migrant youth, youth living in at-risk neighborhoods and youth with disabilities. These populations have the most to gain from positive sport experiences but are typically not afforded access and opportunity due to the pay-to-play framework of youth programs.

To attain the goal of increasing sport participation for all youth, strategies are identified at interpersonal, organizational, community and public policy levels.

Q: What are potential benefits and detriments of youth sport participation?
Prof. Weiss: Physical benefits include developing fundamental motor skills, movement literacy and physical fitness. Social benefits include developing friendships, supportive relationships with coaches and parents, and respect and responsibility attributes. Psychological benefits include improved confidence, body image, and cognitive performance.

Along with participation benefits, potential detriments can range from the physical (e.g., injuries, illness and sleep issues) to the psychological (e.g., anxiety, stress and burnout). 

Beneficial effects outweigh the detriments of participation when coaches are trained to deliver lessons using age-appropriate behaviors within a mastery climate and parents are supportive in their involvement (e.g., reinforce effort and improvement rather than winning). The important point is that beneficial effects are not an automatic consequence of participating in sport.

Q: What advice would you give parents of young children who are interested in participating in sports?
Prof. Weiss: To enhance your child’s motivation to be active in sports and physical activities, here are five things to consider:

  • Allow your child to choose any activities they are interested in trying. Do not constrain their choices based on stereotyped beliefs (e.g., by gender, race, ability).
  • Provide support for your child’s participation by signing them up — seeking a scholarship to pay for registration, if needed — and arranging for transport to and from sessions.
  • Encourage your child to do physical activities with their friends and to initiate making new friends in their activities.
  • Use a positive approach to giving feedback to your child: tell her/him what they did correctly and what and how they can improve.
  • Be a positive role model by being active yourself, express a positive attitude toward the value of physical activity, and show an interest in your child’s involvement by attending sessions and discussing their experiences with them.

Q: What are the opportunities to increase youth sport participation? 
Prof. Weiss: Strategies are identified by multiple levels of influence, ranging from more proximal (e.g., interpersonal, organizational) to more distal (e.g., community, public policy) layers of influence.

At the interpersonal level, parents, caregivers, school teachers and coaches can influence youths’ interest in and motivation to participate by providing opportunities (e.g., signing up for programs, providing scholarships, engaging in positive coaching practices) and being positive role models of physical activity and sport behaviors.

At the organizational level, youth sport programs can adopt a child-centered philosophy that focuses on developing physical and social-emotional skills. Programs should train coaches to meet the needs and interests of all youth, regardless of ability level, and create a safe climate that reinforces effort, improvement and enjoyment as ways of defining success rather than favorable social comparison.

At the community level, leaders — such as elected officials, administrators, and park and recreation facilitators — can lobby for more and better sports facilities, equipment and resources to encourage greater rates of participation of all youth, regardless of gender, race, religion, ability and income level.

At the public policy level, state and federal government representatives can provide scholarship funding to enable youth of all walks of life to participate; award grants to youth sport programs for programming, coach training and evaluation efforts; and establish and maintain physical and psychological safety for all participants with the aid of law enforcement agencies.

Q: What is the focus of your youth sports research?
Prof. Weiss: My research is focused on sports and physical activities as contexts for promoting youth development — including physical, social, and psychological attributes and skills. Despite long-standing beliefs that sport teaches life skills, this is not an automatic consequence of participation. My studies have delved into the social and environmental conditions that maximize the benefits and minimize the downsides of participating in sport. 

Our intervention studies have engaged in evaluating programs that adopt a positive youth development philosophy, by creating an intentional curriculum of skill-building activities and training coaches to deliver physical and life lessons using effective feedback and a mastery climate. Findings from these programs, including Girls on the Run and The First Tee, reinforce the notion that life skills need to be intentionally “taught” rather than assumed to be “caught” by merely participating in sport. 

Maureen Weiss, Ph.D., is a professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s School of Kinesiology. Her research focuses on sport and physical activity as a context for promoting youths’ physical, social and psychological development.

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