By the time a child reaches adolescence, his or her interest in sports is most likely at its peak. Children of this age often collect sports memorabilia, wear clothes resembling the uniforms of their favorite players, and spend larger amounts of time watching and talking about sports.
In 1993, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on a study that found participation in school athletics programs substantially reduced the likelihood that adolescents would begin smoking. The national study surveyed more than 11,000 students from across the country and found that the "ratios of regular and heavy smoking decreased substantially with increasing number of sports played." Speculating as to the reasons for this dramatic statistical revelation, the authors of the study suggested a series of social factors associated with athletics, including increased self-esteem, counseling from coaches about the dangers of smoking, decreased peer pressure, and a realistic understanding of reduced athletic performance as the result of smoking. The study further suggested that the culture of organized athletics values conservative appearance and behavior more so than other adolescent cultures.
Minorities and women also benefit socially from participation in high school sports. A 1993 Harris survey reported that the main reason women and minorities participated was to become more productive, better adjusted people and, many also said, to help them pay for their college education. The Harris survey found that 70% of African Americans say athletics helps keep them focused on academic work; 44% say it helps them to become better citizens; and 65% say it helps them avoid drugs. One other rarely considered benefit of high school athletics is that the playing field is often the only place where different cultures meet. The Harris survey found that 76% of all athletes polled said they had become friends with someone from a different racial group while participating in a high school sport.
The social benefits of athletics are especially important for young girls. In fact, it has been argued that girls are more in need of the benefits of athletics than boys. Adolescent girls tend to have lower self-esteem than boys, and many suffer from the false belief that their bodies are useful only to the extent that they are attractive to men. Statistics compiled by the Women's Sports Foundation also demonstrate that girl athletes receive substantial benefits from participation in sports. They found that girls who participated in school athletics are 92% less likely to use drugs, including tobacco and alcohol, and 80% less likely to get pregnant. Additionally, they are three times more likely to graduate from college.
Society also benefits from school athletic programs in ways that are not immediately apparent. One such benefit, according to an article in the Sporting News, is decrease in juvenile crime, which is most prevalent between the hours of 3:00 and 6:00 p.m., when many students are left on their own. These are also the hours generally occupied by high school sports, often the only constructive activity available to students after school.
Despite the numerous benefits athletics brings to children, there are negative aspects as well. While sports are routinely credited with helping boys and girls build self-esteem, practice team work, and respect authority, over-intense competition and pressure to succeed from parents, coaches, and peers can also damage young people, both physically and psychologically.
Often, a competitive drive, coupled with over-eager coaches or insistent peers, can drive young athletes to compete even when they are injured. At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, for instance, Kerri Strug, a teenage girl on the U.S. gymnastics team, became a sort of national hero for continuing to compete while injured. Young people will often interpret cultural messages like this to mean that one should continue competing even with pain.
To help reduce the chances of being injured, several organizations have begun advocating the use of more protective gear in organized sports for children. The January-February 1996 issue of Public Health Reports published the results of a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calling for wider use of protective head and mouth gear for all organized athletics for children. The journal cited a recent study which estimated that as many as one-third of all dental injuries in children are sports-related. As evidence of the effectiveness of using protective head-gear, the article pointed out that prior to a 1962 rule requiring high school football players to wear helmets and mouthguards, 50% percent of all injuries were to the face or mouth. That figure has since dropped to 1.4%. Youths participating in football and hockey are perhaps the most likely to be provided with protective devices, but baseball and soccer players are also at risk for injuries, and are less likely to wear protective gear.
In 1994, Science World reported the surprising results of a study done on sports injury rates among high school athletes. The study, conducted over 13 years and surveying 60,000 high school athletes, arrived at the startling conclusion that the high school sport with the highest rates of injury was girls' cross country running, which had 36% more injuries than boys' football. Explaining the findings, the study's author, Stephen Rice, suggested that biological and social factors play a role but reminded readers that "cross country is a contact sport." He said that the contact runners have with the ground can be just as damaging as the contact received on the football field, if not more so.
The other major factor to consider when enrolling a child in organized athletics is the sometimes adverse effects competitive pressure can have on a child. This is a major problem in the United States, where professional athletes are some of the most admired and highly paid people in the country. Many parents and coaches have dreams of developing the next Michael Jordan or Jackie Joyner-Kersey and can push a child beyond his or her capacity, leading to physical injury and psychological problems. Another drawback to consider is that many sports, such as football, wrestling, and gymnastics, have rigid weight requirements that can often lead young athletes to manipulate their body weight with drugs and severe diets or eating binges. In 1995, Sports Illustrated reported that officials of a suburban Chicago youth football league routinely gave diuretics to athletes as young as 10 to help them meet weight requirements. The story broke when the mother of a 12-year-old told her pediatrician that her son had taken drastic measures to lose 12 pounds in three days. After being confronted by the pediatrician, the boy's coach freely admitted that he had given the boy Lasix, a diuretic that, used incorrectly, can cause heart failure, kidney problems, coma, and, in some cases, death. When the story was picked up by the Chicago Tribune, the paper heard from several parents defending such practices, saying that if a child wants to take such drastic actions and his or her parents approve, it's perfectly okay.
This attitude on the parts of coaches and parents is cited as one of the main reasons 75% of children drop out of organized athletics by the age of 15, according a study published in Family Circle in 1996. The study was conducted by Michigan State University's Institute for the Study of Youth Sports and found that the major reason children dropped out of sports was "coaches who yelled or played favorites." Students also reported too much emphasis was placed on winning. In many cases, coaches' drive to win can lead to instances of child abuse, and the popular press has in recent years reported several frightening stories of bullying coaches. One child advocate was quoted in Family Circle as saying, "Ridiculing kids and embarrassing them in front of their peers and parents is child abuse. You don't have to hit a kid to inflict deep wounds."
In 1995, McCalls magazine published an article of do's and don'ts for families to help them use athletics as a unifying, family-building force, rather than allowing it to become an overriding consumer of family time or a point of contention or pressure when a child doesn't live up to parental expectations. The article also addressed the touchy issue of non-athletic children. Many children simply aren't interested in sports, and parents should respect the wishes of a child who shows no interest in sports. Other activities such as skiing, bicycling, running, and swimming, which do not emphasisize competition, may be more attractive to some children.