What Kids Learn from Sports

I grew up watching gold medalists Olga Korbut and Dorothy Hamill on television. Not surprising, then, that I became a budding gymnast and a figure skater. As a teenager, I practiced at the ice rink for a couple of hours every day before school. And I gained far more than a tolerance for cold and an appreciation for warm weather.

In gymnastics, I learned to perform as an individual who is also part of a team. From both sports, I learned that hours of practice doesn’t always make perfect, and that perseverance is the only route to mastery. I learned that people aren’t always nice to one another. I learned that when you fall, the best thing to do is to get back up as quickly as possible and keep on going.

Both of my children played team sports in recreational leagues and school: field hockey, soccer, gymnastics, basketball, baseball, cross country. They learned many of the same lessons: you are a valued part of the team, even if you aren’t the top scorer. When you commit to doing something, you have to show up, even if you’d rather be somewhere else. And of course, things don’t always go as planned.

According to a recent NPR poll, 73% of all adults played sports as children. More than three-quarters (76%) of all parents of middle and high school children encourage their children to participate in sports, as well. According to the Aspen Institute, 21 million children in the United States between the ages of 6 and 17 play team sports on a regular basis.

Although we tend to stress the physical benefits of being active (less risk of obesity, healthier eating habits, decreased stress), there are many other benefits to sports participation. Kids who play sports tend to have higher self-esteem and leadership qualities. They tend to perform better academically. They are more likely to exhibit goal-setting behaviors.

Children who participate in sports learn the value of practice and determination. They learn to work with teammates to accomplish shared goals. They learn about friendly competition, to be good sports who congratulate the winners and don’t denigrate the losers. They learn about cooperation and discipline.

And these principles translate into the workplace. A Cornell University study found that athletes who played youth and high school sports have better employment opportunities as adults. They tend to display higher levels of leadership and hold higher-level positions than their non-athletic peers. In addition, they are more likely to volunteer and donate to charity.

Not every child is going to find a sport he or she loves. Many children will find that they don’t excel at one or more sports. Sometimes, there is a personality conflict between your child (or you) and the coach. But these things, too, offer teachable moments (as teachers like to call them).

Teaching your son to finish out the season once he discovers that he doesn’t actually like swimming is important. Reminding him that not everyone is good at everything will help him to be forgiving of himself and others. Helping your daughter find the words to respond to a bully will give her the tools to stand up for herself in other situations. Telling your children about how you’ve dealt with an obstinate co-worker or boss will help them navigate difficult interactions in their own lives.

Dr. Jim Taylor, author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child, believes that parents should guide their children to try new things. Many kids would rather stay within their comfort zone (wouldn’t we all?), rather than attempt something they perceive as challenging. Parents need to gently encourage their children to try new things without turning into the caricature of a “pushy” sports parent yelling from the sidelines.

Lisa Endlich Heffernan wrote in the Atlantic that parents ruin sports for their children by focusing too heavily on winning. “It is our job to teach [our kids] that they can only control their own effort, preparation and focus and not the outcome.” As parents, we are responsible for making sure that our children have fun playing sports while learning the life lessons inherent in the game.

Sports can have a lasting impact on a child’s life for years to come, and they are part of a child’s broader education. Help your child identify a sport that she might want to try. He might find a lifelong passion. Then again, he might hate it. Either way, you can help make that experience meaningful for him.

This post also appeared at GoLocalProv.

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