LAWRENCE — Sports and coaching depend on motivation. One might not think of psychology as relevant to youth sports, but a University of Kansas doctoral student and professor have authored a study detailing how sports psychology professionals can help youth sports administrators evaluate their programs and improve the motivational environment so kids have more fun and better physical, psychological and emotional outcomes.
Susumu Iwasaki, doctoral student, and Mary Fry, associate professor of health, sport and exercise science, conducted a study in which they worked with administrators of two youth sports camps to survey young participants about how they perceived the environment — whether it was caring and task-involving, or ego-involving — and how such results can be used by coaches and administrators everywhere to improve youth sports. The study will be published in the journal The Sport Psychologist.
“When kids perceive a caring, task-involving climate in a sport setting they have more fun, less stress, they display better sportspersonship, better empathy for their peers and intend to stay with it longer,” Fry said. “Unfortunately, this kind of evaluation of youth sports is definitely not the norm. There’s so much positive information that can be gained from it.”
Iwasaki and Fry worked with the administrators of a volleyball camp for girls age 9 to 13 and a basketball camp for boys and girls age 7 to 18. Both camps were designed to help participants enhance their athletic skills but also have goals related to mental skills training, goal setting, team building and developing their potential as human beings. Participants completed surveys that gauged how they perceived the caring/motivational climate, as well as their levels of intrinsic motivation, their future desire to participate in such a camp and the extent that the athletes and coaches engage in caring behaviors with one another.
The researchers compiled the data and shared it with the coaches, who were not present during the surveying. The coaches and administrators indicated their willingness to use the data to improve their camps for the future. That factor is important, as Iwasaki and Fry pointed out that about 35 million young people participate in sports annually in the United States and the typical dropout rate in youth sports programs each year is approximately 30 percent. That lack of physical activity can translate to all manner of negative outcomes, both physically and mentally.
“It’s not unusual to see kids who leave sports programs in tears,” Fry said. “Coaches are often taught that being hard on their athletes will bring out the best. We know from a great body of research that’s just not the case.”
Iwasaki and Fry said they hope the findings and the experience of sports psychology professionals working with administrators lead to more collaboration. Sports psychology professionals can apply their training, which administrators often don’t have, while those who run sports programs can help continue to build the body of research on positive climates in youth sports. Both researchers have sports psychology training and coaching backgrounds. Iwasaki played and coached basketball at Ibaraki University in Mito, Japan, and Fry is a former high school tennis coach.
Fry has published research in the past showing that kids who perceive they are taking part in a positive, caring sport environment are better emotionally adjusted and show less depression. Iwasaki is working on a dissertation that examines the link between a caring athletic climate and mindfulness, including how well athletes can focus on the present and not worry about the past or potential negative consequences for their performance.
“We know that if you’re a coach, a negative approach can be destructive to the learning environment,” Iwasaki said. “This study helps show how doable it is for youth sports programs to evaluate their climates and improve.”
“Any program can be doing this,” Fry added. “We’d love to see all youth sport programs seeking feedback from their participants; youth sports would be so much better.”