Exploring Youth Sport Contexts: a Look at Young Female Athletes' Perceptions of Their Specialized Sport Experience

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Wilson, Brian Murray
Early Specialization , Development , Sport , Female , Youth
In sports like gymnastics and figure skating where peak performance occurs before physical maturation it logically follows that athletes need to be dedicated to their athletic development at a young age if elite performance is to be attained. However, countless studies have reported that early specialization in a single sport exposes youth to elevated risks of negative physical, psychological or emotional outcomes associated with sport participation (Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2007). As such, it is important that we develop an understanding of the contextual factors or features of specialized youth sport environment(s) that are having positive impacts on youth growth, development and long-term commitment to sport. By harnessing an understanding of the features of specialized youth sport environments that positively contribute to the youth sport experience, we will be better equipped to mitigate the increased risk of negative outcomes in these environments. Using the National Research Council Institute of Medicine’s (2002) eight setting features as a framework, the general goal of the current study was to explore the specialized youth sport environment as it is experienced by young athletes. Photo-elicitation was used to conduct interviews with 15 female athletes between the ages of 8 and 13 who primarily participated in one sport for 12 or more hours per week, for at least 9 months of the year. Two over-arching dimensions of the specialized youth sport experience emerged from the themes generated by the interviews: program design and interaction. Program design represents six themes underpinning the program’s inherent structure and organization: personal performance emphasis, consistent training structure, adaptable practice activities, rule guided engagement, appropriate equipment set-up and maintenance, and supervision by one or more adults. The interaction dimension represents six themes that emerged as a result of relationships with key social agents (e.g., parents, coaches, peers, community) of the sport environment: tangible support, informational support, emotional support, cultivation of camaraderie, achievement recognition, and opportunities for autonomy. These findings add to the literature as they provide a first step in understanding the specialized youth sport environment from the athlete’s eyes. That is, they not only help us understand the elements of the youth sport environment that youth perceive as important, but they also provide us with a working framework of the key features that are likely to contribute to positive outcomes in specialized sport environments.
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