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Kids and Competitive Sports: Too Much Pressure?

Posted by David Sortino

A child playing any sport that includes uniforms, umpires, coaches, players and parents will often sense an intense need that they succeed from the adults around them. That intense pressure contains all the elements that can cause eventual failure.

This is particularly true with baseball. A round bat used to hit a round ball often traveling at a great speed is a sport built for a child’s failure. A professional player who successfully hits one out of every three pitches over the course of a career could end up in the Baseball Hall of Fame!

Organized sports places such a high level of stress on kids that many children simply give up most competitive sports by age 12. However, a large number of children will still place themselves in competitive situations, regardless of the potential degree of failure, causing much distress for parent and child alike.

As a child, I had the best of both worlds when it came to sports and competition. First, my parents were mainly concerned with my having fun with my chosen sport, baseball. Secondly, where I grew up, our initial exposure to sports was sandlot baseball, which consisted of a grassy field where all the neighborhood kids would go to play a baseball game, often lasting for hours on end. There were no parents, umpires, uniforms or coaches. Any disagreement was quickly solved by the rock, paper, and scissor method. Finally, our trophy was simply the fun of playing the game. Interestingly, myself and two other sandlot players went on to play college ball and one even signed to play minor league ball.

Recently, I observed an 11-year-old child on TV who was at bat in a very intense Little League World Series game. He struck out before 10,000 screaming fans, ending the game and causing his team’s elimination. The child broke down in tears. Like most children at this age, I would have given my right arm to play in a Little League World Series game, regardless of the level of success or failure. But who knows what stress that situation caused on that child and his future willingness to play competitive sports.

My suggestion to parents of children dealing with competition is that they read John Wooden’s book, Game Plan For Life. John Wooden was the highly successful UCLA basketball coach (he won ten NCAA basketball championships in 12 years) who believed that winning and losing, although important, should be secondary to skill and character development. For example, instead of first asking your child “Did you win or lose the game?” we might ask, “Did you improve with your passing or dribbling skills?” Or, “What did you learn from the game — and above all, did you have fun?”

The bottom line is that we should always remember the old adage that children would never learn rules to games if they didn’t have fun playing the game. I think the late Mr. John Wooden might agree.


About David Sortino

Dr. David Sortino is a psychologist and currently Director of Educational Strategies, a private consulting company catering to teachers, parents, students. Dr. Sortino can be reached at or on his blog:

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