The joys of pro­fes­sional sports often go hand in hand with the enor­mous pres­sure for teams and ath­letes to suc­ceed — and appease their pas­sionate fan bases. We asked Dan Lebowitz, exec­u­tive director of Sport in Society, a North­eastern Uni­ver­sity research center at the Col­lege of Pro­fes­sional Studies, to explain why the pres­sure on pro­fes­sional ath­letes gets so intense, and whether it’s hap­pening more fre­quently in youth sports as well.

Pro­fes­sional ath­letes face incred­ible pres­sure to per­form at the highest level. Why is so much expected of them?

First, I’ll say that the plat­form of sport is unique in its ability to pro­vide a common lan­guage for all people regard­less of race, reli­gion, socio-​​economic status, gender or sexual ori­en­ta­tion. Given that extent of inclu­sion, it cre­ates an envi­ron­ment sim­ilar to a fish­bowl in which every move is scru­ti­nized, ana­lyzed, com­mended or crit­i­cized. When you live on a plat­form that is open for all to see, you essen­tially have nowhere to hide. The exu­ber­ance of fan-​​hood some­times cre­ates a hys­teria that can be at times uni­fying, either in a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive sense.

I also think the salary struc­ture in pro sports esca­lates expec­ta­tion, often beyond what is humanly pos­sible. We need to remember that much of sports involves failure. In base­ball for instance, a .300 bat­ting average is con­sid­ered a bench­mark of excel­lence, yet that number, based on 10 at-​​bats means that the player failed seven times. If we remain mindful of that back­drop, and of car­rying the weight of unre­al­istic expec­ta­tions, per­haps we can embrace sports and ath­letes in a more humane fashion.

Fans obvi­ously don’t endure this same pres­sure, but many cer­tainly carry the weight of their teams’ highs and lows on their shoul­ders. What is it about sports that makes people so passionate?

Many times, we define much of our per­sonal iden­tity in our sports alle­giances. This allows us to deflect many of the chal­lenges and dif­fi­cul­ties of our per­sonal and pro­fes­sional lives into a frame­work of fan-​​hood and gives us sort of an iden­tity outlet that we hope will be always pos­i­tive. Sport is a way for us to meld our indi­vid­u­ality with a com­mu­nity without the many “isms” that create divi­sion in our society. Sport is such a part of the human con­di­tion and yet, as with any­thing involving humanity, it comes with all the beauty, flaws, suc­cesses and failures.

The scrutiny imposed on youth sports seems like it has increased in recent years. Do you agree, and how can we strike the right bal­ance of encour­aging youth ath­letes’ suc­cess while ensuring an enjoy­able expe­ri­ence for them?

There seems to be a defin­i­tive move­ment toward what I would call a pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of youth sports. When ranking ser­vices pro­duce reports about the “best 4th grader in the nation,” we have lost our per­spec­tive about the role of sports in young peo­ples’ lives. This has moved the realm of youth sport from being cen­tered largely on the joy of play to a new con­struct that focuses instead upon the expec­ta­tion of per­for­mance. In many ways, this has cre­ated a funnel to the very extremity of fan-​​hood that I spoke to in the pre­vious questions.

It seems to me that the basis of all cul­tural change is edu­ca­tion, par­tic­u­larly lead­er­ship edu­ca­tion that engages a con­ver­sa­tion rather than leg­is­lates behavior. We at Sport in Society want to lead this dia­logue and create a con­ver­sa­tion about sport that includes not only its inherent com­pe­ti­tion, but also its ability to teach com­mu­nity, coop­er­a­tion, team­work and life skills in a logic model frame­work, where the out­come is about healthy human development.