Millions of youth devote a substantial amount of their childhood to sports. Undoubtedly, spending this much time in any activity will impact their lives. The common adage “sports produces character” captures the prominent reason children, teenagers, and young adults are encouraged to participate in sports: an assumption that the lessons learned in sports will equate to success in life. However, research on the impact of sports participation is mixed, with some showing negative effects on youth development. Although sports can shape the lives of teenagers in powerful ways, these findings challenge the notion that sports automatically lead to positive youth outcomes, particularly a healthy identity and emotional development. Given that youth are spending so much time in sports and parents are spending so much effort and money to have their kids in sports, why not have young people’s experiences in sports be as formative as possible? This article discusses important developmental processes during adolescence that are relevant to sports and highlights some research-informed approaches to help parents and caring adults engage with youth playing sports.
Benjamin J. Houltberg is Associate Professor of Human Development at Fuller Seminary. Recently, he has focused on emotional health of elite athletes in high-pressure contexts. This research has led to national and international research presentations and service. He is actively involved in the Sports Chaplaincy Program to International Sporting Events and served as a chaplain to the 2009 World Track and Field Championships in Berlin, Germany. Houltberg also presented his research at the International Convention on Science, Education and Medicine in Sport in Glasgow, United Kingdom, in conjunction with the 2012 Olympic Games. He continues to work with coaches and athletes from around the world to promote spiritual and emotional health in dealing with pressures to perform.