Sports: Healthy Competition vs Performance Anxiety

With school back in full swing, kids are joining their friends and classmates in school sports. Sports can be a great way for growing children to develop fine and gross motor skills. However, it can also be an area of stress and pressure to perform.

By age 6, kids can participate in most simple sports activities. They have the basic tools and motor skills to help them play. More complex activities and concepts may still be hard for them to understand at that age though. Most kids are eager to start playing with their friends. It is up to us as parents to help and guide them.

Kids begin to play sports because they are a fun way to socialize and play with other children their age. However, nowadays many kids are quickly met with an intense pressure to perform. What was once a fun activity is now stressful competition. A certain level of stress can be beneficial for young athletes. Stressful situations teach us new coping skills. When that stress becomes negative or too much to handle is when we get into trouble. Young athletes have developing brains and are continuously learning how to manage new situations. Children are also looking to create their own identity. When that identity starts to hinge on whether a child wins their latest game is when it becomes problematic. As parents, we need to recognize if our children no longer enjoy what they used to. Competition introduces the idea of success and failure. Competition, as well as the chance to succeed or fail on their own, teach important lessons to our kids. However, if the fear of failure becomes overwhelming for our child, it can become detrimental.

There are tons of different activities and sports out there for our kids to try. Participating in a good variety not only gives them a chance to find what they love the most, it also helps with burnout. Two out of five kids, 40%, stop playing a sport they used to enjoy. Some of the most common reasons for this include: too much pressure to win, loss of interest, problems with the coach, and lack of time. If your child wants to quit, talk to him or her about why. Find out if there is something you can do to help, or if they want to try something else. Avoidance of difficult situations should not always be the answer. We can try and push our kids to excel and have fun, but in the end, if they are miserable we shouldn’t force them to continue.

As always, remember to talk to your pediatrician before beginning school sports. Before starting, children will need a sports physical to make sure they are healthy and ready to participate. This is also a great time to bring up any questions or hesitancies about starting new activities. It is almost a given that kids will get hurt at some point or another while participating in sports. It is our job to make sure they stay as safe as possible, within reason. Children are especially vulnerable to injury during puberty or growth spurts. These growth spurts usually happen around age 11 and a half for girls and 13 and a half for boys. During this time, they will start to become bigger and stronger and go through many hormonal changes. However, with this rapid increase in size, will also come a decrease in balance and body control. This alone will make them more prone to injury. On top of that, during growth spurts, children are at higher risk for growth plate injury. Growth plates are the parts of bones that actually grow longer as we get taller. They are more fragile because they are weaker than surrounding bone. Growing children are also at a higher risk of ligamentous injury. Ligaments are the parts of our body that hold and stabilize our bones together. Sport can be one of the most enriching parts of our children’s’ lives. We just have to make sure they are safe and both mentally and physically healthy!


Austin Warne, MD



American Academy of Pediatrics: Care of the Young Athlete Patient Education Handouts, 2011



Paul R. Stricker, MD, FAAP, American Academy of Pediatrics: Sports Success Rx! Your Child’s Prescription for the Best Experience, 2006


American Academy of Pediatrics: Caring for Your Teenager, 2003


Suanne Kowal-Connelly, MD, FAAP, American Academy of Pediatrics: Effects of Puberty on Sports Performance: What Parents Need to Know, 2016


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