Are Jocks Jerks? Kids, Sports and Life Lessons

 A three-part series on the role sports play in childhood development. 

Depending on one’s high-school experience, there are two distinct philosophies about the role sports plays in a child’s development. There’s the idea that youth sports teaches kids discipline and respect, keeps them off the street, and helps them mature into adults: it’s sports that turned athletically gifted but insecure Daniel Larusso into The Karate Kid.

But just as pervasive is the opinion that jocks are jerks, and kids who play sports are mean bullies who will do anything to win, who need to dominate their opponents and who carry that aggressiveness streak off the field. Kids who play sports, this line of thinking goes, are more like Johnny Lawrence, star athlete (and big-time bully) from the Cobra-Kai dojo.

A recent study in the journal Developmental Psychology suggest that jocks really are jerks—if they focus exclusively on sports at the expense of other more-well rounded programs. But kids who both play sports and are exposed to youth-development program like scouting or 4-H show the most markers of personal growth and maturity.

The study (which was funded in part by 4-H) looked at more than 1,000 fifth through seventh graders, rating both extracurricular involvement and common indicators of youth development. They found that kids who focus exclusively on sports are more likely to be bullies, more likely to lack positive childhood-development markers, and more likely to be a little depressed. Kids who did sports and a youth-development group, like scouting or 4-H, were the most likely to follow the Daniel-san model: good kids who contribute to the community and know how to interact with adults. “Kids who are just involved in sports are focusing in on what it is to be competitive with other kids. To dominate and win and not lose: that life is a zero-sum game,” says study author Richard Lerner.

That’s because more often then not, the positive lessons that one can learn through sports are often drowned out by a focus on less transcendental issues. “When you just teach kids here’s how to take a set shot, here’s how you take a jump shot … you don’t use the opportunity to work with the kids as a context how to make it in life, not just on the playing field,” Lerner says.

Sadly, that’s become the case as parents have begun to view sports as a means to a financial end. “Winning has always been important, but until the '80s and '90s, it seems to me that the parents weren’t as invested in the idea that hey, this is a way my kids could go to college,” says Mark Hyman, author of Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids. That’s not a reality for most kids—only one in 20 high-school varsity athletes will play any kind of college sports, and the percentage of those athletes who get scholarships will be much less—Hyman argues that the focus has shifted, making sports solely about turning kids into champion athletes, not responsible adults.

So what’s the secret to turning a child’s sporting from a one that teaches aggression to one that teaches larger life values? What separates the Johnny Lawrences from the Daniel Larussos? Mr. Miyagi, of course. One of the reasons youth development programs are so successful is that they provide adults who can develop a “positive and sustained relationships with that young person,” says Lerner. “A mentor.”  Having a consistent authority figure who can provide support and guidance—and who is more concerned with a child’s development then the team’s record at the end of the day—goes a long way to instilling the right values in child athletes. Prior to the beginning of a season, parents should work with coaches to ensure that kids are taught not just athletic skills, but lessons on teamwork, cooperation, and playing by the rules.

Parents should also be aware that their attitude toward professionalsports and paid athletes may impact the way their kids view athletics. “Parents mediate the experiences of their kids. Often time they do itunintentionally just by having conversations that kids happen to beprivy to,” says Jay Coakley, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Colorado. “Kids are like little sponges when itcomes to that kind of stuff, especially if their relationship to theirparent occurs primarily in sport context. The child learns very quicklythat this is how they connect with their parents.” Rooting for the hometeam is OK; cursing out the closer for giving up the winning run lessso.    

Most importantly, parents are responsible for synthesizing the values kids take to and from all of their activities, says Coakely. Talking to your child every week about what he or she is learning—and how those lessons apply to everyday life—will ensure that sports-loving children grow into be heros, not villains, on the high-school sports scene.


Next Week: Are team sports or individual sports better for your child?