For the love of the game: Are youth athletes still enjoying themselves?

How dangerous is the so-called "Hockey Dad phenomenon" that has recently swept through youth sports?

Pediatrician Claire McCarthy, who is also a Boston Globe contributor, said she is concerned with this problem – where parents and coaches push youth athletes too far, to the point where sports are no longer enjoyable. Children become driven to achieve simply for the sake of achieving, which could be an acceptable outcome if athletes are gratified by the recognition they receive, but it could also detract from the enjoyment of the sport.

"Somehow, we need to stop this cycle. Somehow, we need to take youth sports back for our kids and find a way to turn them back into what they should be: a chance for kids to be active, have fun, set goals and learn sportsmanship," McCarthy wrote for the newspaper this week. "We need to see overuse injuries for what they are: a big red flag waving in our faces."

Despite McCarthy's assertions, there may be some hope that not all youth athletes feel the same way their parents or coaches might. In 2010, The New York Times ran a profile about Peter Barston, a Connecticut high school sophomore who conducted a survey with his father of more than 700 youth athletes and found that, regardless of gender or sport, more than 95 percent of athletes cited "fun" as the primary reason they played youth sports.

The newspaper also cites a 1989 study out of Michigan State University in which respondents did not list "winning" in the top 10 of reasons they played sports. In that survey, the most popular answer was also "fun" as the primary reason they played sports.

To break the cycle that McCarthy is concerned about, coaches and family members of athletes should encourage an environment in which team goals, individual goals and enjoyment of the game are in alignment. No matter what lacrosse equipment, baseball sporting goods or football equipment athletes may wear, sports could stop being enjoyable if youth athletes are not invested in the game.

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