The acquisition of sports skill expertise is both a product of development and a process for development, meaning that psychological development affects sports skill acquisition and that sports skill acquisition results in psychological changes. Important developmental considerations include the fact that children are both quantitatively and qualitatively different from adults in maturation and experience and sport participation results in various developmental outcomes.
Here are just a few of the vast array of reasons on how sports can positively influence early childhood development.
The maturity and growth of internal mental capabilities and functioning, such as thought processes, memory, motivation, and self-perceptions, are essential to sport engagement and skill improvement. Children are naturally motivated to learn and are rarely bored when offered the opportunity to acquire new skills in a way that is challenging and interesting for them. Rather than using threats or persuasion, coaches can keep children motivated by introducing challenging practice activities that facilitate learning.
The ability to imitate behavior is fundamental to motor skill learning, as motor skills are often learned by watching coaches or other athletes demonstrate behaviors, in a way that a child might never be able to by himself.
Youth sports participants typically have higher perceptions of competence and control than those who drop out. Task-oriented children self-reference their perceptions of achievement more strongly, and thus typically better persist in their sports efforts because they are more focused on improving their own performances than they are worried about how their success compares to others. And there is the always present challenge of taking initiative, planning, carrying through and achieving valued goals.
Sports are inherently social contexts that intersect with other important social contexts such as family, education, community and culture. Children grow in and through connections with others, supporting the fundamental importance of trusting, supportive, and close interpersonal sport relationships. Greater enjoyment, higher self-esteem, positive emotions, sustained and committed participation, more mature levels of sportsmanship, positive psychosocial and psychomotor development, and reduced competitive anxiety are all consequences.
Attachment strength and adult responsiveness have significant effects on infant and early childhood social and emotional reactions, and provide the basis for a child’s “internal working model.” Internal working models of children generalize onto other relationships, such as extra-familial relationships (as in peers, coaches, intimate partners), and are strongly associated with children’s abilities to form and maintain close relationships throughout their lives.
Peer influence becomes increasingly influential through middle childhood. Given that sport is played within a context of such interactions, sport is a powerful context for social development, providing opportunities for children to make friends, play cooperatively, make comparisons that form competence beliefs, regulate emotions, and manage conflicts. Young people learn the importance of key values such as honesty, teamwork, fair play, respect for themselves and others, and adherence to rules.
For children who lack caring and secure relationships with adult caregivers at home, coach-athlete relationships may provide surrogate sources. Supportive relationships with coaches can convey protective influences against risk and lead to positive psychological outcomes such as emotional resiliency, personal empowerment, stronger self-worth, and capacity to deal with conflict. Coaches can also facilitate development through meeting athletes’ essential needs for belongingness, competence and autonomy.
Moral understanding is fostered when parents and coaches help children become aware of and learn normative standards of behavior in sport, and to interpret, label, and explain causes and consequences of emotion as well as social behaviors. Development of personal skills such as empathy, loyalty, intimacy, self-control, team-spirit is in order, as well as building curiosity, perseverance, and self-assessment.
Sport and play enhance learning and encourage better academic performance. Being guided and highly structured extracurricular activities, practicing a sport helps when imposing structure on a child’s life. This indirectly results in a reduction of time spent in unstructured, less beneficial activities such as watching TV or using the computer.
At younger ages, children benefit from a broad foundation of general motor skills, whereas with increasing age they naturally and typically begin to choose a few sport activities in which to develop more skill. The acquisition and performance of motor and sport skills in childhood are critical to lifetime movement literacy, psychomotor confidence, and competitive success.
There is also coping, which consists of those cognitive, emotional, and behavioral effects used to manage difficult life situations. A variety of these difficult situations arise during sport participation, such as injury, abusive coaches, performance setbacks, and competitive losses.
Sports represent a good entry-point for the promotion of healthy lifestyles, including the values of physical fitness and proper nutrition, as well as reducing childhood obesity. Body fat is significantly lower among children participating in sports, as well as lower resting pulse rates, only among many other benefits: cardiovascular disease prevention, fully functioning respiratory systems, proper bone health.
Children participating in sports outperform children nor participating in all dimensions, and it’s no surprise—sport participation can strengthen a variety of life assets for young people. In addition to the most obvious life skill assets of gaining motor competency and sport skill, sport participation can also be used to promote social, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physical, and moral competence; foster resilience, self- efficacy, and identity; and develop connection and civic engagement in ways that extend far beyond the sport engagement.