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Physical Education & Sport Pedagogy

ISSN: 1740-8989 (Print) 1742-5786 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cpes20

Youth sport programs: an avenue to foster positive
youth development

Jessica L. Fraser-Thomas , Jean Côté & Janice Deakin

To cite this article: Jessica L. Fraser-Thomas , Jean Côté & Janice Deakin (2005) Youth sport
programs: an avenue to foster positive youth development, Physical Education & Sport
Pedagogy, 10:1, 19-40, DOI: 10.1080/1740898042000334890

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/1740898042000334890

Published online: 23 Jan 2007.

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Youth sport programs: an avenue to
foster positive youth development

Jessica L. Fraser-Thomas,! Jean Côté and Janice Deakin
Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada

Concern about the growth in adolescent problem behaviours (e.g. delinquency, drug use) has led to
increased interest in positive youth development, and a surge in funding for ‘after school programs.’
We evaluate the potential of youth sport programs to foster positive development, while decreasing
the risk of problem behaviours. Literature on the positive and negative outcomes of youth sport is
presented. We propose that youth sport programs actively work to assure positive outcomes through
developmentally appropriate designs and supportive child – adult (parent/coach) relationships. We
also highlight the importance of sport programs built on developmental assets (Benson, 1997)
and appropriate setting features (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2002) in
bringing about the five ‘C’s of positive development (competence, confidence, character,
connections, and compassion/caring: Lerner et al., 2000). An applied sport-programming model,
which highlights the important roles of policy-makers, sport organizations, coaches and parents
in fostering positive youth development is presented as a starting point for further applied and
theoretical research.

Keywords: Program design; Developmental assets; Sport participation; Sport dropout;
Coaches; Parents; Sport outcomes

There is growing concern about the future of today’s youth. Concerns stem from an
increase in adolescent problem behaviours (delinquency, drug use), coupled with
changing social forces (both parents working, single parent homes, increases in
youth unsupervized time at home alone). Over the past two decades, researchers
and practitioners have taken a ‘deficit reduction’ approach to youth behaviour pro-
blems (Benson, 1997). Most often, a problem has been identified (e.g. obesity),
and funding has been provided so that researchers could examine strategies and
develop interventions to reduce or eliminate the problem. Unfortunately, this
approach is costly, and intervention programs have only demonstrated moderate
success (Benson, 1997). Further, Pittman (1991) has pointed out that problem-free

Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy
Vol. 10, No. 1, February 2005, pp. 19 – 40

!Corresponding author: School of Physical and Health Education, Queen’s University, Kingston,
ON, K7L 3N6, Canada. Email: jesslfraser@hotmail.com

ISSN 1740-8989 (print); ISSN 1742-5786 (online)=05=10019 – 22
# 2005 The Physical Education Association of the United Kingdom
DOI: 10.1080=1740898042000334890

youth are not necessarily fully prepared: youth free of drugs, alcohol use and crime are
not necessarily prepared to productively engage in society. Recent theoretical and
applied research proposes that an ‘asset building paradigm’ hold equal weight to
a ‘deficit reduction paradigm’; that focus be placed on promoting positive youth
development as well as reducing problem behaviours in youth (Benson, 1997).
Accompanying this paradigm shift is a vision of fully able children, eager to
explore, gain competence, and make a difference in society (Damon, 2004). It has
been suggested that youths’ potential needs only to be fostered appropriately for
optimal development to occur (Peterson, 2004).

However, this vision may initially appear idealistic. One does not need to look
far to see the inequities in today’s society. Socio-economic status, race, gender,
and environmental factors can all limit youths’ opportunities. For example, youth
sport programs are becoming increasingly expensive, competitive and elitist. As
De Knop et al. (1996) suggest, cultures around the world are experiencing the insti-
tutionalization of youth sports, which is leading programs to become increasingly
inaccessible to many families. While Hellison and Cutforth (1997) emphasize the
vital role youth programming can play in facilitating the healthy development of
youth at risk, they suggest that organizations serving inner-city children and youth
are overburdened and underfunded.

In this paper, we examine the youth sport and positive youth development bodies
of literature, and propose an applied sport-programming model of positive youth
development. The model emphasizes the vital role of policy-makers in assuring the
accessibility of youth sport programs to all youths, regardless of socio-economic
status, race, culture, ethnicity, or gender. The model also highlights the role of
sport organizations in designing programs that develop better people, rather than
simply skilled individuals. Finally, the model proposes the critical role of coaches in
implementing programs on a day-to-day basis, and of parents in supporting their
child throughout their involvement in sport programs. At both the sport programming
and implementation levels the model highlights pedagogical issues in the areas of
general subject matter, specific learning settings, and instructional methods.

Positive youth development

Numerous definitions of optimal youth development have emerged among research-
ers. Hamilton et al. (2004) suggest that optimal development in youth ‘enables indi-
viduals to lead a healthy, satisfying, and productive life as youth, and later as adults,
because they gain the competence to earn a living, to engage in civic activities, to
nurture others, and to participate in social relations and cultural activities’ (p. 3). It
has been suggested that through optimal development, ‘good youth’ emerge. ‘Good
youth’ are said to experience more positive than negative affect, to be satisfied with
their life as it has been lived, to recognize what they do well and use their strengths
to fulfill pursuits, and to be contributing members of society (Peterson, 2004). The
question of exactly how youths’ potential is fostered through positive development,
and how resulting ‘good youth’ emerge in society is only beginning to be addressed.

20 J. L. Fraser-Thomas et al.

The National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (NRCIM, 2002) has
outlined four main areas of youth development: physical, intellectual, psychologi-
cal/emotional, and social. For each development area, several corresponding assets
are suggested, that facilitate positive youth development. For example, good health
habits and good health risk management skills are assets facilitating positive physical
development. Knowledge of essential life skills, vocational skills, decision-making
skills, and critical reasoning skills contribute to positive intellectual development.
Numerous assets contribute to youths’ psychological and emotional development
including mental health, positive self-regard, coping skills, conflict resolution skills,
mastery motivation, a sense of autonomy, moral character, and confidence. Finally,
assets facilitating youths’ social development include connectedness with parents,
peers, and other adults, a sense of a social place, an ability to navigate in diverse con-
texts, and an attachment to pro-social or conventional institutions. The NRCIM
(2002) outlines eight features of settings that are most likely to foster these positive
developmental assets (Table 1). Hellison and Cutforth’s (1997) eleven key criteria
of ‘state-of-the-art’ extended day programs are strikingly similar; however, they also
highlight the importance of keeping program numbers small, focusing on the whole
person, respecting individuality, empowering youth, encouraging courageous and
persistent leadership, treating youth as resources to be developed, and helping
youth envision their futures.

Benson and colleagues (Benson, 1997; Benson, Leffert, Scales, & Blyth, 1998;
Leffert et al., 1998; Scales & Leffert, 1999; Scales et al., 2000) have also developed
a list of developmental outcomes based on scientific literature and practitioners’
wisdom. The Search Institute’s 40 assets are divided into two broad categories
(external and internal assets), and further divided into eight sub-categories
(Table 2). Despite youths’ differing needs, interests, and environments, Benson and
colleagues have found a trend towards asset depletion in all American youth
(Benson, 1997). Race, ethnicity, and family income do not appear to influence
asset development, while gender and family composition appear to have only a
slight influence on asset development (assets are fewer in boys and in single parent
families). Benson and colleagues’ research has consistently demonstrated three
powerful roles of developmental assets: protection, enhancement, and resiliency.
For example, developmental assets play a protective role because the more assets

Table 1. Features of positive development settings (NRCIM, 2002)

1. Physical and psychological safety
2. Appropriate structure
3. Supportive relationships
4. Opportunities to belong
5. Positive social norms
6. Support for efficacy and mattering
7. Opportunities for skill building
8. Integration of family, school, and community efforts

Positive youth development through sport 21

youth have, the less likely they are to engage in high-risk behaviours such as alcohol,
tobacco, and drug use. Youth high in developmental assets are also less likely to be
depressed or suicidal, and less likely to demonstrate antisocial behaviours, violence,
and school problems. Second, developmental assets play an enhancement role, as
youth who demonstrate more developmental assets are also more likely to ‘thrive’,
meaning they are more likely to be successful in school, show leadership, volunteer

Table 2. 40 Developmental assets (Benson, 1997)

External Assets Support (1 – 6) 1. Family support
2. Positive family communication
3. Other adult relationships
4. Caring neighbourhood
5. Caring school climate
6. Parent involvement in schooling

Empowerment (7 – 10) 7. Community values youth
8. Youth as resources
9. Service to others

10. Safety
Boundaries & Expectations (11 – 16) 11. Family boundaries

12. School boundaries
13. Neighbourhood boundaries
14. Adult role models
15. Positive peer influence
16. High expectations

Constructive Use of Time (17 – 20) 17. Creative activities
18. Youth programs
19. Religious community
20. Time at home

Internal Assets Commitment to Learning (21 – 25) 21. Achievement motivation
22. School engagement
23. Homework
24. Bonding to school
25. Reading for pleasure

Positive Values (26 – 31) 26. Caring
27. Equality and social justice
28. Integrity
29. Honesty
30. Responsibility
31. Restraint

Social Competencies (32 – 36) 32. Planning and decision making
33. Interpersonal competence
34. Cultural competence
35. Resistance skills
36. Peaceful conflict resolution

Positive Identity (37 – 40) 37. Personal power
38. Self-esteem
39. Sense of purpose
40. Positive view of personal future

22 J. L. Fraser-Thomas et al.

to help others, show care and concern for others, and show optimism regarding their
future happiness and success. Third, youth high in developmental assets demonstrate
more resilience in difficult situations.

Another framework of positive youth development is reflected in Lerner et al.’s
(2000) five desired outcomes of youth development, or five ‘C’s of positive youth
development: competence, character, connection, confidence, and caring and
compassion. Lerner et al.’s Model of National Youth Policy (2000) suggests that
policies must be developed to allow families and programs to foster and promote
positive development. If this occurs, youth will in turn demonstrate the five ‘C’s
of positive youth development. Collectively, these processes will lead to the sixth
‘C’ of positive youth development: contribution. As physically, socially, psychologi-
cally, emotionally, and intellectually healthy youth develop into adults, they will
choose to contribute or ‘give back’ to civil society, and in doing so, be promoting
the positive development of the next generation of youth.

Positive youth experiences and outcomes through sport

While the benefits of youth sport participation have been of interest to sport
researchers for some time, no research to date has examined the benefits of sport
within the framework of positive youth development. However, youth clearly experi-
ence many positive developmental outcomes through their sport involvement. In this
section, research on the benefits of youth sport participation is reviewed, within the
context of youth development. Specifically, benefits are examined using physical,
social, psychological/emotional, and intellectual development (NRCIM, 2002) as a
framework.

Physical development

With obesity and associated disease on the rise among today’s children and youth
(Tremblay et al., 2002), the importance of physical activity as a means of fostering
positive youth development has gained considerable attention among researchers.
Physical activity is essential for youths’ optimal development, as it facilitates
normal growth and development in children and adolescents (Bar-Or, 1983).
While cardiovascular fitness and weight control are among the most evident health
benefits of physical activity (Health Canada, 2003; Taylor et al., 1985), skill develop-
ment, improved muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and bone struc-
ture are additional benefits (Wankel & Berger, 1990; Côté & Hay, 2002). In
addition, adolescents involved in regular physical activity are less likely to smoke
than adolescents not involved in regular physical activity (Aaron et al., 1995).
Finally, given that physical activity habits developed during youth are associated
with physical activity habits in adulthood (Dishman et al., 1985; Baronowski et al.,
1992; Curtis et al., 1999; Robertson-Wilson et al., 2003), active youth are less
likely to develop numerous diseases later in life including heart disease, obesity,

Positive youth development through sport 23

diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, depression, and cancer (Taylor et al., 1985; Paffenbarger
et al., 1986; Powell et al., 1987; Berger & Owen, 1988; Health Canada, 2003).

Psychological=emotional development

Sport and physical activity offer youth opportunities to experience challenge, fun, and
enjoyment, while increasing their self-esteem and decreasing their stress (Csikszent-
mihalyi, 1975; Long, 1985; Health Canada, 2003). Further, researchers have
argued that activities such as sports, music, and the arts foster positive psychological
and emotional development. For example, Gilman (2001) found that participation in
structured extracurricular activities was associated with higher life satisfaction among
youth, and that the more structured activities youth participated in, the higher their
life satisfaction. Given that subjective well-being or happiness has long been con-
sidered a central component to optimal development and a good life (Park, 2004),
these findings highlight the additional role of sport involvement in youths’ positive
development.

Most recently, the authors (Fraser-Thomas & Côté, 2004) conducted a study with
11 grade five students, randomly selected from a small elementary school in a mid-size
Canadian city. Youth recorded all the activities of their waking day for two days, and
rated their enjoyment for these activities in the form of ‘no fun’, ‘some fun’, or ‘lots of
fun.’ While youth involved in organized sport activities over the two days (N ¼ 5)
rated 45% of their day as being ‘lots of fun’, youth not involved in any organized
sport activities over the two days (N ¼ 6) rated only 8% of their day as being ‘lots
of fun’. Given that all participants spent almost half their day in school, it is clear
that those involved in sports experienced significantly more happiness or subjective
well-being in their day-to-day living.

Social development

Research also indicates that sport experiences foster citizenship, social success,
positive peer relationships, and leadership skills (Evans & Roberts, 1987; James,
1995; Manjone, 1998; Elley & Kirk, 2002; Wright & Côté, 2003). Further, youth
sport and physical activity participation has been positively correlated with adult
career achievement (Larson & Verma, 1999) and negatively correlated with school
dropout and delinquent behaviour (Segrave, 1983; Sheilds & Bredemeier, 1995;
Eccles & Barber, 1999; McMillan & Reed, 1994). Wankel and Berger (1990) high-
light that through sport, youth have opportunities to experience positive inter-
group relations, community integration, social status, and social mobility, while
Côté (2002) suggests that sport provides an arena for the development of social
skills such as cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.
Youth involved in sport often demonstrate discipline and commitment (Scanlan
et al., 1993; Shogan, 1999); preliminary evidence suggests that these traits carry
over into other domains of life such as school and community (Marsh, 1993;
Carpenter, 2001).

24 J. L. Fraser-Thomas et al.

While many researchers (e.g. Gilman, 2001) have made the case that youths’ invol-
vement in structured activities such as sports, music, and the arts fosters positive
psychological and emotional development, Larson (2000) proposes that initiative, a
key component to youths’ positive social development, can also be developed
through these structured activities. Given today’s job demands and basic lifestyle
requirements, Larson (2000) argues that youth need to take charge of their lives
through the development of initiative. However, using random sampling moments,
Larson and Richards (1991) found that American youth are bored 27% of the
time. Larson believes that initiative is constructed of three key elements (intrinsic
motivation, concerted engagement, and temporal effort directed towards a goal)
and suggests that structured voluntary activities such as sports, arts, music,
hobbies, and organizations offer the best contexts for initiative development, as
they are voluntary (require youth to be intrinsically motivated), require attention
(elements of challenge), and require effort over time. He distinguishes how structured
leisure activities such as sport (which requires attention and effort over time, and is
voluntary), differs from school (which requires attention and effort over time, but is
not voluntary), and television viewing (which is voluntary, but does not require
attention or effort over time).

Intellectual development

Finally, youths’ involvement in physical activity has been positively correlated with
academic performance in numerous studies (Dwyer et al., 2001; California Depart-
ment of Education, 2002), while participation in high school sport has been positively
linked to school grades, school attendance, choice for demanding courses, time spent
on homework, educational aspirations during and after high school, and college
attendance (Snyder & Spreitzer, 1990; Marsh, 1993; Eccles & Barber, 1999;
Whitley, 1999). Further, it has been suggested that physical activity and sport can
play an important role in fostering cognitive development in youth (Mize, 1991;
Stevens, 1994).

Negative youth experiences and outcomes in sport

While most often youth experience positive outcomes through sport, research
suggests that experiences are sometimes less positive. In this section we discuss nega-
tive outcomes of youth sport.

Physical development

Youth sport involvement has been linked to some negative physical outcomes such as
sport-related injuries and eating disorders (Reel & Gill, 1996; Steiner et al., 2000;
Anshel, 2004). In a study comparing two national rhythmic gymnastics teams,
Beamer and Côté (2003) found that the higher ranked team (2nd vs. 17th in the
world) had done significantly more training, but rated their overall health significantly

Positive youth development through sport 25

lower than the lower ranked team. While many sport injuries are caused by training
volume (Hollander et al., 1995) others are caused by risk-taking (Steiner et al.,
2000), and the nature of the sport. Eating disorders are also a prevalent health
problem in sport settings (Beals & Manore, 1994). Numerous studies have high-
lighted how environmental, psychological, social, and physical factors such as the
aesthetic orientation of the sport, coach pressure, and personality traits (e.g.
perfectionism) can lead to eating disorders in athletes (e.g. Reel & Gill, 1996;
Anshel, 2004). Recent literature suggests that youth athletes, particularly girls, are
becoming concerned about their body image at increasingly early ages (Davison
et al., 2002).

Emotional=psychological development

The negative emotional and psychological outcomes of youth sport have earned con-
siderable attention in youth sport literature in recent years. Wankel and Mummery
(1990) highlighted that youth often feel excessive pressure to win, perceive themselves
as having poor abilities, feel unattached to their teams, and feel vulnerable in the pre-
sence of team mates. Experiences such as these have led youth to experience low self-
confidence and low self-esteem (Wankel & Kreisel, 1985; Martens, 1993). Athletic
burnout is another psychological concern that has gained attention in recent youth
sport literature (Smith, 1986; Coakley, 1992). As a relatively new area of research,
there is some disagreement on the nature of athletic burnout. Smith (1986) defined
burnout as a ‘psychological, emotional, and at times physical withdrawal from a for-
merly pursued and enjoyed activity’ (p. 37), while Coakley (1992) argues that social
organizations of high performance sport, rather than individual stress-based problems
are responsible for athlete burnout.

Social development

The increasing competitiveness in youth sport settings, coupled with the physical
nature of sports, has led youth sport involvement to be linked to numerous negative
social outcomes. In particular, acts of violence and aggression have become common
in youth sport settings (Colburn, 1986). In a recent study of perceived sport aggres-
sion, Gardner and Janelle (2002) found that these behaviours were considered accep-
table and legitimate within the sport environment. Poor sportsmanship has also been
linked to youth sport involvement, while morality reasoning within the sports context
has been found to decrease with age (Bredemeier & Sheilds, 1987; Bredemeier, 1995;
Lemyre et al., 2002).

What factors contribute to positive and negative experiences and outcomes

in youth sport?

Unfortunately, this literature highlights the fact that many sport programs designed to
foster positive youth development are in fact doing just the opposite. This raises the

26 J. L. Fraser-Thomas et al.

question of how policy-makers, sport organizations, coaches, and parents can assure
positive youth development through sport. To answer this question, we first examine
the factors contributing to positive and negative experiences and outcomes in youth
sport. Bronfenbrenner’s (1999) operational model of development provides a frame-
work to facilitate understanding of youths’ activities and the contexts within which
their activities take place. His propositions suggest that for effective development to
occur, a) a person must engage in activities, b) activities must take place ‘on a fairly
regular basis, over an extended period of time,’ c) activities must take place over a
long enough period of time to become ‘increasingly more complex,’ and d) activities
must involve long-term reciprocal relationships (pp. 5 – 6). Thus, the Bioecological
Model emphasizes the importance of the nature and context of youths’ activities
(such as sport) in youths’ development. In examining past literature, two contextual
factors have consistently surfaced as contributing to positive and negative outcomes
and experiences in youth sport: program design (e.g. early diversification versus
specialization) and adult influence (parents and coaches).

Program design

While a limited body of literature has examined youth sport program designs, recent
literature has begun to look at programs’ promotion of early specialization or early
diversification. Specialization has been defined as the ‘limiting of participation to
one sport that is practiced, trained for, and competed in on a year-round basis’
(Hill & Hansen, 1988, p. 76). Recently, early specialization has become popular, as
children are starting their sport participation at earlier ages (Ewing & Seefeldt,
1996), and the availability of sports camps, instructional clinics, and other off-
season programs is increasing (Hill & Simons, 1989). For these same reasons, early
diversification (more diverse early sport experiences) is becoming less common
among youth.

Côté and colleagues’ (Côté, 1999; Gilbert et al., 2002; Baker et al., 2003; Beamer &
Côté, 2003; Soberlak & Côté, 2003; Baker et al., in press) research with elite athletes
in a variety of sports (rowing, tennis, baseball, basketball, netball, triathlons, and
hockey) has led the way in research on early diversification. Expert athletes in Côté
and colleagues’ studies generally passed through three stages of development: the
sampling years (age 6 – 12), the specializing years (age 13 – 15), and the investment
years (age 16þ). Primary factors that distinguished each stage of development were
the number of activities the child participated in, and the structure and design of chil-
dren’s practices and training. These elite athletes generally participated in a variety of
sports during the sampling years (age 6 – 12), a decreasing number of activities during
the specializing years (age 13 – 15), and committed to only one activity during the
investment years (age 16þ), while their practice structure changed from a focus on
deliberate play (Côté & Hay, 2002) during the sampling years to a focus on deliberate
practice (Ericsson et al., 1993) during the investment years.

Orlick (1973, 1974) was among the first to highlight sport program design as a
factor contributing to negative youth sport outcomes and experiences. Orlick

Positive youth development through sport 27

collected questionnaire and interview data on 60 youths (age 7 – 19) formerly involved
in youth sport, and found that 50% of study participants indicated that programs were
too serious, focused only on winning, and lacked enjoyment. More recently, Côté has
focused on the role of early specialization leading to negative outcomes in youth. Côté
(2004) suggests that if specialization occurs at a developmentally inappropriate age,
benefits (e.g. improved skills) are outweighed by physical, psychological, and social
disadvantages (e.g. overtraining, injury, failure to develop transferable skills,
decreased enjoyment, burnout, depression, decreased self-esteem, increased sensi-
tivity to stress, fear of competition, sense of failure, missed social opportunities etc.:
Hill, 1988; Hill & Hansen, 1988; Raglin, 1993; Hollander et al., 1995; Boyd &
Yin, 1996; Seppa, 1996; Beamer & Côté, 2003).

Not surprisingly, early specialization has also been linked to early withdrawal from
sport. Wall & Côté (2004) studied dropout in high-level youth hockey players
(Bantam AAA). They found that dropout athletes participated in a higher quantity
of off-ice training and began off-ice training at a younger age than hockey players
who stayed involved. Barynina and Vaitsekhovskii (1992) also found that Russian
national team swimmers who specialized earlier took more time to reach international
status, did not stay on the national team as long, and retired younger than late
specializers.

This literature confirms that the context (design) of youths’ sport programs can
play a significant role in youths’ sport experiences and outcomes. More specifically,
the literature highlights the benefits of early diversification versus early specialization,
in the promotion of positive youth development through sport.

Adult influences

Bronfenbrenner’s (1999) model also suggests that in order for effective development
to occur, youth must …

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