Dr. Amanda Visek is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Exercise Science at The George Washington University. Her research interests include sport performance enhancement, sport aggression, youth sport, and exercise psychology. She is currently heading up an NIH-funded study on the determinants of youth sports participation. flyburst caught up with her to explore her research as well as her observations on the contemporary youths sports landscape.
FB: How did you become interested in sport psychology and, in particular, its application to youth sports?
AV: Sport psychology sparked my interest, in large, because of my own sport experiences growing up playing little league baseball, gymnastics, and figure skating and watching my younger brother play soccer and ice hockey. But, I didn’t really ‘discover’ sport psychology as a science or career path until I was in college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A business major turned exercise and sport science and psychology double-major, I took my first sport psychology class with Dr. John M. Silva, father of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. He quickly became my mentor and was a big influence in my decision to attend West Virginia University for my dual-degree doctoral studies in sport psychology and community counseling. I became particularly interested in youth sport as I was completing my master’s thesis, in which I studied youth through minor league professional ice hockey players. From there, ‘doing sport psychology’ with kids became important to me. There is a misperception that sport psychology is only for elite athletes, which just isn’t the case – athletes of all abilities can benefit from sport psychology. I wanted to be able to give back to kids the knowledge and skills I’d wished I’d had as a young, competitive athlete. So, I spent part of my doctoral training gaining entry to youth sport teams in the community and working with kids.
FB: What are the types of issues sport psychologists might address with regard to an individual or youth team? Can you provide a couple of examples of projects you or your colleagues have worked on and the results?
AV: One of the issues facing kids today is the professionalization of attitudes in youth sport. That is, an increasing focus on winning at the expense of skill development and fair play. My first published study was in this area and the results showed that as kids increase in age and competitive playing level, their attitudes related to sport become increasingly professionalized. In fact, more professionalized attitudes were also associated with a greater legitimacy or acceptance of engaging in aggressive, rule-violating behavior.
FB: There are countless news stories about overzealous youth sport parents. On the other hand, our greatest athletes including Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, and Serena and Venus Williams had very involved parents. What are some strategies that parents can use to know "how far to go?"
AV: “More is better” is a misnomer, but unfortunately is very much a part of the American sport ethic and culture that can consume parents. So this question is an important one because parents are the first and most critical socializing agents in youth sport. Regrettably, for some parents, their actions stem from a desire to live vicariously through their children. You may have heard overzealous parents also called helicopter parents, those that are over-involved and constantly hovering. Other parents, however, are very well intended, but misguided in the best ways to support their young athletes. There’s a careful balance to being involved enough, but not too much, and that balance is going to change as kids grow. As young athletes get older they are going to naturally seek greater autonomy, even in their sport decisions.
Parents should regularly check in with their kids and create opportunities for open, honest communication about how best they can support their kid. Parents can have a profound effect on directly and indirectly sending messages to their kids about what’s most important when it comes to their kids sport participation. Ultimately, the kid’s health, well being, and enjoyment should be pivotal. Picking their kids up from practice and first asking questions like “Did you have fun?”, “What new things did you learn today?” and “How did you play?” send much healthier and more motivating messages than “Did you win or lose?” or “What was the score?”.
FB: We read an article recently that said the emphasis on winning in youth sports has significantly diminished the social and health benefits of physical activities. In general, do you agree with this statement?
AV: There’s more research coming out with regard to the impact concussions have at both the professional levels of sport, as well as the youth levels. Similarly, kids are subject to more over-use injuries today than they used to be, in part, because there’s a trend toward kids selecting into one-sport at younger ages rather than playing and sampling a variety of different types of sports. We know from research that kids have the most to benefit in their health, development, and athletic abilities if they are given the opportunity to participate in an array of different types of sports, particularly in their early years. The idea that kids that specialize in one-sport the earlier the better increases their chances for playing in college or at other elite levels simply isn’t supported. Also, an over-emphasis on winning at the expense of kid’s enjoyment can greatly diminish their interest in continuing to play sports.
Right now, overweight and obesity in children and adolescents is a global epidemic. As sport scientists, we really need to begin concentrating our efforts on understanding what makes sport most fun for kids. As sport psychologists, we need to educate parents, coaches, and the larger youth sport communities in how we can work together to create positive, fun sport experiences for kids such that they WANT to continue playing not just through their childhood and adolescence, but into their adulthood. We know, in fact, that physical activity patterns in kids will track into adulthood. So youth sport experiences can certainly be pivotal in laying the foundation for a kid’s future physical activity behaviors.
FB: One of your research articles is titled “Youth athletes are NOT miniature adults: A comprehensive guide to performance enhancement with youth sport.” Can you talk about this work and how it might apply to parents and coaches of youth athletes?
AV: Great question! There is a tendency at times to treat youth athletes as miniature versions of their adult, athlete counterparts. However, children are unique from adults in that their cognitive, emotional, social, and physical abilities are still very much developing. As children grow and mature, the will achieve developmental milestones, however, even the speed at which they do can vary greatly from their same-age peers. Some of my work, and that of my colleagues, has been in bringing greater awareness to youth sport development. That is, as coaches, parents, and even as sport psychologists working with youth athletes, we need be cognizant of these developmental differences and make the appropriate modification and adjustments in how we communicate, train, and even teach mental skills to kids.
FB: You are working on an NIH-funded study on factors impacting participation in youth sports. Can you talk about the study and the insights that you hope to glean?
AV: Yes, this is a three-year grant award that has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and specifically by the National Institute of Nursing Research. Essentially, my aim here is to better understand what makes sports the most fun for youth athletes and to also identify specific barriers to their enjoyment of sport. This is significant because the #1 reason why kids drop out of sport is because it is no longer fun. Seventy-percent of kids will drop out by the age of 13 and as many as 1/3 of kids drop out annually. So, the first phase of our project is to multi-dimensionally define what makes playing sports fun. We’ve been working with hundreds of DC metro area athletes’ ages 8-19 years old, parents, and coaches. They have identified 81-specific things that make playing sport fun. This data alone is so helpful because ‘fun’ which can be an abstract concept has now been concretely identified by these 81 different things.
We are now working with the youth sport community to help us quantify these 81 things that make playing sport fun. That is, how important is each fun idea? How frequently does it occur? And really, how feasible is each one? This data will be quite robust because we are not only gathering the perspectives of players, but we’re also including coaches and parents perspectives, as well. This will allow us to see where there may be discordance in what players say is most important to fun and what parents and coaches ‘think’ makes for the most fun experiences for kids. Because parents and coaches are such strong socializing agents in the youth sport experience, it’s important to elucidate the potential differences in perspectives so that we can work to create programs that maximize young athlete’s fun.
Unfortunately, school-based physical activity has not been a solution in the face of the growing overweight and obesity epidemic facing our children and teens today; this places a greater burden on leisure-time physical activity to be a solution. I do believe that with evidence-based interventions, we can work to make after-school youth sport programs more effective at retaining their youth sport participants. In fact, The George Washington University is so invested in the outcomes of this public health research that this project is also being cost-shared by our School of Public Health and Health Services, as well as by my Department of Exercise Science.
If you would like to contact Dr. Visek about her research or consulting services, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org