Over-competition in sport is bad for children’s mental health

Finding physical activity they enjoy more important than relentless drive for success

Members of the O’Tooles and Castleknock teams shake hands after a game during an U10 football tournament in Clontarf. “Girls’ involvement in team sports tends to fall off a cliff ‘right at the time when they would benefit most’.” Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

"I don't know how to manage my own anger, frustration and utter gut-wrenching hurt for him when he sobs that he is not good enough," a concerned parent wrote in a letter to the 'Irish Times' parenting expert, John Sharry, this week.

Their son’s devastation was not caused because he was failing at school, or had done something to disappoint his parents. Instead, it was because of being left on the sidelines at under-12s GAA matches. The writer said they were angry with the coach who, they wrote, “is excluding my child”.

The response to the letter – one of the most heavily read and discussed articles on irishtimes.com this week – suggests it is a common situation. The writer identifies a conundrum that all coaches in children's sport face at some point. Which should take priority: fostering talent or encouraging participation? At what stage is it okay to let fun and commitment take a back seat to competitiveness?

“The goal should be to include as many people as possible for as long as possible at their level,” says Sharry.


By focusing exclusively on talent at younger levels, coaches risk overlooking emerging stars"

“Over-competition in sport is problematic for children’s mental health. Some competition is fine to keep them focused, but too much is a problem. It’s bad for the less athletic kids because they feel bad [or feel] they may be letting the team down, and rejected if they are dropped. But it’s also a problem for the high-achievers who can become anxious about their performance.

“To make the most of the enduring mental health benefits from sport, it should be about enjoyment and passion, physical exercise, learning new skills, socialising, and working together at shared tasks.”

Children should never be left on the sidelines, says Helen Hannigan, an international rower for Ireland who retired in 2015, and now assists with the coaching of under-13 girls in football at Clontarf GAA.

“At that age, it should be about getting kids involved, having fun, building their confidence, and developing their body awareness. So many kids come home from school, do their homework, and go straight on to the Xbox or phones and aren’t doing enough physical activity, which will lead to more health problems as they get older. We should be doing everything we can to encourage them to stay in sport.”

Waterford’s Eoin McGrath in action in his playing days in 2002 against Clare’s Brian Quinn. Photograph: Brian Lawless/Sportsfile

Emerging stars

By focusing exclusively on talent at younger levels, coaches risk overlooking emerging stars, says Eoin McGrath, who played hurling for Waterford for more than a decade, and is still involved in coaching at club level.

“Even in school teams, you’d always come across the lads who were 50-50 in terms of ability – but you still have to encourage those lads, because everyone develops at a different rate. I was a small 12 myself, and if you’re small at that age, unless you have pace to burn, you’re going to struggle. But by 14 or 15, that kid will have caught up, and he might discover a real talent for it.”

Under-13s camogie coach at Clontarf GAA, Eoghan Hannigan – who, like his wife Helen, is a former elite rower – makes a point of rewarding the kids who turn up for camogie practice every week with a place on the team for matches, even if that means those with more natural ability and less dedication have to sit on the bench.

In sailing, we believe creating a lifelong love of the sport is more valuable than results at a young age"

“Commitment and participation trumps all in the end. If you really love something and you’re committed and you’re hungry, that matters more than raw talent. The history of sport is full of stories of people who weren’t the stand-out players when they were young, but who got there through hard work.”

The example of Olympian Annalise Murphy shows that fostering a love of the sport is more important than handing out medals, says Treasa Cox of the Irish Sailing Association.

Murphy has said of herself that she is “probably not the best sailor in the world. I’m not exceptional. Ninety-five per cent of the time I’m good, but I’m nothing amazing, but then I think five per cent of the time I have managed to be better than all my competitors.”

“In sailing, we believe creating a lifelong love of the sport is more valuable than results at a young age. Annalise succeeded because she was the one who put in the hard graft. The ones who make it in the long term aren’t necessarily the ones who show huge talent early on. You have to develop a love for the sport first – and then the results come,” says Cox.

The signs popping up at pitches around the country reminding spectators that “These are kids. The coaches are volunteers. The referees are human. This is not the World Cup” are a reminder of another deterrent: pushy parents.

A lot of parents now are pushing kids to the brink of quitting the sport"

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley sympathises with coaches who might look dimly on “the Mama Bears who insist that the coach should play their little Johnny every week – never mind whether little Johnny can kick the ball in a straight line or not. The entire GAA works by relying on people who are willing to contribute towards the parish in whatever way that is needed so that the team succeeds.”

McGrath comes from a family deeply immersed in sport – he and his brother Ken both played for Waterford, as did their father, Pat. But he says the only pressure the brothers felt was what they put on themselves.

“We were always out to try and prove to our father that we were good enough to play. We always had to impress him.”

“A lot of parents now are pushing kids to the brink of quitting the sport. The reality is that not everybody is going to play intercounty hurling or premiership soccer. But not every parent wants to accept that.”


At Greystones United AFC, the emphasis is on developing players of all levels, and there are posters around the club stating that “we win, we draw, we learn, we never lose”, says Damien Ivory, a coach with the under-14 girls’ and under-11 boys’ team.

“As a coach my focus is always on development rather than winning. Winning starts to happen by default, but it isn’t as important,” he says.

“There is a balance, though. As kids get older, it’s important to be able to deal with loss and victory, and there is a need to experience real competition. That’s why it’s critical that they have found the right level to play at when they reach teenage football.”

The advice often given to parents is that kids should do one gymnastics-type activity, one athletic sport and one ball sport. But the reality is that team sports are not for every child, especially the ones who find themselves standing on the sidelines week after week.

Team sports are not the only way to get the benefits of physical activity – just get them doing one thing that they love, and you’re already ahead, says Sharry.

“The best sport for your child is whatever works best for them. Individual sports can have all the mental and physical health benefits of a team sport.”

For girls in particular, when they hit their teens, their involvement in team sports tends to fall off a cliff “right at the time when they would benefit most”.

“If you can find a sport you enjoy, which is at your level of ability, and you can help the team achieve something, that’s brilliant. And it doesn’t even have to be a sport. It could be a club activity like the scouts,” he says.

Sport is important to fashion designer Leigh Tucker, a mother of three daughters, and to her husband Oran Heron, a personal trainer. But they have opted for their three daughters (aged 10, 7 and 5) to do gymnastics and athletics rather than a team game.

“It took us a while to find the right fit, as we are not into medals. At the moment all three do gymnastics eight hours a week, and Lena, the eldest, also does athletics twice a week. We found a gymnastics club with an ethos that was the right fit for us: not overly focused on competition, with an emphasis on skills, fun, being part of a group and commitment.

I think I'm proof that there is a sport for everyone – you just have to find it"

“Our kids are never going to compete internationally, but they’re on a high after practice, and we try teach them that’s what the prize is, the feeling great.”

An initiative being developed by the International Triathlon Union aims to find a more structured role for less athletically-inclined kids, says journalist Ed Rice. "We need to expand the notion of participation. Our plan is to get the kids who aren't as capable involved in the running and administration, so they can still benefit from that sense of worth and community."

For some children, it is just a matter of trying different things until they find the sport they love.

Former rowers Eoghan and Helen Hannigan with their children Medb, Caelfind, and Abaigeal.

Helen Hannigan remains convinced there “is a sport for everybody”. “I played GAA – badly – all through my teens. I was more of a bench warmer, but I enjoyed it and it kept my fitness up. It’s only when I went to college and discovered rowing that I found the sport I was passionate about.

“For me, that’s what sport is about. For years and years, I couldn’t let a day go past without getting out on the water. I think I’m proof that there is a sport for everyone – you just have to find it.”