Blueprint for violence in youth sports: Whose concern is it?

We see and lament the rise in injuries in youth sports and correlate it to a rise in violence in youth sports. We tend to say that the behavior of today's professional athlete is a major contribution to this change that we see in interscholastic athletics as well as the recreational programs in the communities. We even acknowledge that the behavior of the parents goes a long way to establishing this "Blueprint" for teenage behavior and potential injury in sports. While without doubt, both phenomena have made their contributions, it is difficult to debate which came first with regard to the professional athlete's role in the "violence-injury relationship". After all, the professional athlete was a teenage athlete at one time. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

In addition, many people read of the increase in violence and injury in youth sports and adopt the posture of "how terrible this is" and think of the situation as "over there" or "they". In other words, this is a condition that has very specific and definable parameters of influence and is confined to only those who are involved, now! Perhaps only those with equally, narrowly defined socioeconomic environments. What we may not be sensitive to is that the behavior pattern being established on the playing fields will have very definite affects on future relationships be they in the work place or even the interpersonal relationships in the home.

Perhaps a better understanding of the forces that mold the behavior of the youngster might give us a more realistic clue as to what drives the young athlete to the point of increased violence and thus increasing exposure to injury and, too, how they might behave in later life.

We can see that early on, starting in childhood, there is a striving for recognition and independence. The testing of will and authority that begins at that time. The fight for attention and freedom. Yet thwarting this behavior is the total control of the parents, extended into the school by the teacher, beginning at ages 3-5 and continuing into and through the preteen and teen years. In addition there is the regimentation at home dictating when to eat, play, study, sleep, awaken, etc. Then there is the extended regimentation in school, controlling the same events. We know that even those times when there are attempts to give the child "choices", the child is being manipulated in an effort to control or influence behavior. Yet the youngster continues the "battle" and as can be expected, when one tries and tries, and maintains the same goal yet has such a difficult time in reaching the goal and especially if the goal is perceived as not being reached…there is frustration and anxiety that generally ensues. While this tug-of-war goes on, the youngster might get introduced to a sport, and to a great extent, this control over the youngster is now shared by the "coach". To some extent there is an outlet for pent-up frustration by virtue of the fact that the sport is physical…although the expectations that those skill levels in sport present often can heighten the frustration. Of course the desire to please, either parents and/or coach adds to the pressure on the youngster.

Then, around the early teens the youngster is exposed to two new influences. One is the "surging hormones" which bring about behavioral changes that science is still reluctant to definitively explain, and yet the youngster feels these "urges". The second is the introduction to weight training, which promises to make one bigger, stronger, more desirable (especially to the opposite sex), and more competitive in the realm of sports. "Bulking up" gives the youngster a big boost in establishing identity. It also affords the feeling of being able to take more chances. Usually when one feels bigger and stronger one is apt to take more chances in either "talking" or in "doing". Virtually all of the high schools and many of the middle schools, in the United States today, have "weight rooms" in them. The need and/or desire to please the coach, and of course to be more competitive in the sport, along with the possible, personal need of just becoming bigger and stronger and looking better is driving more and more youngsters to go into those weight rooms in order to put on more "mass". We see that "six-packing abs" and "bulking up" have become as much household TV terms as "cleaner, whiter; laundry" and "lighter beer" are.

So by the time the youngster is in the late teens, there very likely is some serious frustration. Add to this the probability that teens and pre-teens get very little, if any at all, formal education devoted to the learning of coping mechanisms or skills. This is frequently lacking in the home environment, as well. Building up frustrations and not knowing how to go about relieving them generally results in becoming a "pressure-cooker" in need of erupting.

So when the opportunities arise, to ease pent-up little understood frustrations, such as hitting a little harder, or taking more of a physical chance, there often is a feeling of relief. These actions get reinforced when a coach or parent rewards such an action with a "well done" signal. Of course the youngster feels more adventurous in taking more of a chance and being more physical because he/she feels stronger. In addition, very subtly, the youngster can feel that here is a condition or situation in which he/she can exercise control. As an athlete one gets to test. Meaning that even though the athlete knows that there are rules with referees or umpires that police the rules, quite often the athlete tries to see "what one can get away with".

Compare the teenage athletes of "yesteryear" and today. In soccer the athlete has gone from 5'6" & 140 lbs. to near 6' & 170 lbs. In basketball there is close to 6" and 50 pound differences. In football around 5 " and 75-100 pound differences. Even in the "non-contact" sports such as baseball, tennis. golf or swimming, we see similar, proportionate differences. However there is one major

common characteristic, and that is that most of them have been visiting the weight rooms for a number of years and the increases in weight are most probably due to increases in muscle density and mass. When one gets that kind of weight increase due to muscle development, one feels different and often.

behaves differently. When one gains power, one behaves differently. The question is, is the difference in behavior being rationally controlled or not?

Perhaps these feelings of sudden control and power are analogous to the times when we have felt washed out, listless, and not in control of ourselves due to lack of food, or lack of sleep or some internal infection. Then when whatever caused these feelings was alleviated we suddenly felt in control and "ready to take on whatever", even though we might not have been able to explain the changes we experienced. Youngsters tend to be less analytic, more reactive, less coping oriented, and more satisfied with the quick results if they are to their satisfaction.

So who or what might be responsible for an increase in violence and injury in youth sports today? Is it the education system for not finding the key to teach effective coping mechanisms at an early age? Or could it be authority figures for not being adequately aware of the reality of increasing pressures on younger ages? Perhaps the youngsters themselves for not understanding the nature of their own body especially with regards to the physical influence on their behavior. We can always blame it on peer pressure, however we define peer pressure. Could it be the sports icons for failing and/or refusing to recognize their influence on youngsters, or indeed not knowing how to deal with their own newly acquired power (the power of influencing youngsters)? Maybe there is a general failure to recognize that while the young bodies can develop and grow well beyond the pace of the young age even potentially equal to a more adult stage of physical development, the emotional development is generally still at the pace of the young mind and as a result we tend to expect too much. The role of sports in society today is, yet, another concern. Sports have become more of a "way out or up", a "tool for recognition and survival" with survival being interpreted in dollars. Sports have come a long way from being an activity that one engaged in merely because it was loved or just plain fun and getting a reward for engaging in it was just "icing on the cake".

This is obviously a multifaceted concern. However if we want to make a more realistic effort at having better control of injury severity and rates and the frequency of violence in youth sports, we must recognize that our efforts have to be better coordinated with a more holistic approach.




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