Experts from Flinders University have expressed concern about the effect of sport participation on children from their pre-school and primary school years, through to young adulthood, and the researchers have issued a warning to parents that they should think twice before putting preschool aged children into competitive sporting programs.
The warning follows extensive interviews with 16 parents of children aged between three and five years old to evaluate the attitudes, motives, and beliefs of parents who engage their children in organised competitive sports at a young age.
“Broader social and cultural forces also play a part in the parents’ motivations and beliefs about the benefits and challenges of contemporary sports,” says lead author Emilea Mysko, whose doctoral study surrounds children’s sport participation and parental role modelling.
“What this and other studies have found is that parents need to be well informed about the short and long-term benefits and risks of deciding to join a competitive sport, particularly at a young age. Parents and carers need to look past the social norms, sporting group and government sporting campaigns and consider whether to enrol their child into an organised sports program.”
Mysko continues: “At a higher level, the youth sport policy-makers need to review the current youth sport model of participation to ensure that those who start sport stay in sport – which doesn’t happen a lot of the time across the childhood development span.”
Although there are many benefits to competitive sport including developing motor competencies, positive self-efficacy, and increased psychological health and wellbeing; early participation can lead to physical injury and psychological burnout which contributes to sporting dropout rates rising in mid-to-late childhood.
One previous study found children who participate before six years of age have an increased tendency to drop out of organised sport within a four-year period.
Co-author Associate Professor Sam Elliott, an expert in the field of sport parenting, participation, and retention, says there are many psycho-social outcomes to consider in youth sport.
“On the one hand, there is evidence that early sport involvement, if carefully delivered, can offer benefits for children,” he said. “But on the other hand, starting children in competitive sport from as young as three years – often dubbed the ‘Tiger Woods effect’ – is associated with a number of potential risks in the present and looking into the future.”
The study’s third author Professor Murray Drummond, director of the Sport, Health, Activity, Performance and Exercise (SHAPE) Research Centre at Flinders University, is the author of Boys’ Bodies: Sport, Health, and Physical Activity (Palgrave Macmillan) and has been investigating the role of sports in mental health and well-being.
The study titled Understanding parents’ motives for, and beliefs about, enrolling three-to-five-year-old children into organised sporting programs (2022) by Emilea Mysko, Sam Elliott and Murray Drummond was published in the Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health journal, and can be accessed on the Flinders University website here.
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