In this age of disappearing playgrounds and heavy academic workloads, sports take a backseat for too many kids. It’s understandable why parents push them to focus on academics instead of athletics, even if they’re good at a game. Apart from a handful of people in an even smaller handful of high-profile sports like cricket or tennis, most folks who excel athletically (even those who win international competitions) end up struggling to make a living one way or another. It’s not a practical career option, and parents know that when their children grow up, there will be bills for them to pay.
Sadly, this means that we’re raising a generation that’s missing out on the multiple benefits of playing sports, whether it’s as part of a team or as an individual. These benefits have been extensively documented, of course. Children who take part in team sports are usually better equipped to deal with difficult situations that involve strategising, working with people, and making quick decisions from available data. It’s even been shown that students active in athletics often perform better academically.
We hear it said very often that sports can help develop leadership qualities in kids. While this is true, we also need those who have the ability to recognise strong leaders, and follow them while still retaining their own critical thinking abilities. Knowing when to take the lead and when to follow is an underrated quality that team sports can bolster.
Engaging in sports and athletic activities also nurtures your competitive spirit, which is essential if you want to make headway in the world. But it also means that you learn how to deal with not winning. No athlete wins every time, and no team avoids losing completely (unless they’re Arsenal’s Invincibles in the Premier League). Learning how to take a hit, deal with a loss, and use failure as a stepping stone to reach a higher level – these are critical tools in becoming a successful, more efficient person.
Acknowledging those negative feelings and turning them into fuel for positive things takes emotional maturity as well as strength of mind, and being an athlete means that you have no choice but to learn how to do this. This also makes children more confident; when they know that they can deal with failure, it’s easier to work to avoid it without a crippling fear of ‘what if’ bogging them down.
Discipline is yet another quality fostered by engaging in athletic activity from a young age. While you may learn how to deal with losing, you will naturally be determined to deal with it as few times as possible. This means an intense desire to win, and the only way to win at sports is to be disciplined enough to train both mind and body. The very natural desire to be lazy, to hit snooze when the alarm goes off, will be drowned by the determination to succeed. Once you establish this kind of work ethic as a child or a teenager, you won’t lose it as an adult. Even if you decide not to pursue sports as a career, this discipline will become hard-wired into you, regardless of your profession.
Engaging in sports is also a good way for children to learn how to socialise. You can’t avoid meeting new people of all ages if you’re part of an athletic team. This makes them a lot more comfortable around people, including adults, and gives them a wider support base if they need help. When young people regularly see authority figures or adults who’re rooting for them, it’s much easier to turn to them when they need to.
Apart from the wide and varied benefits to the heart and mind, engaging in sports as a kid has long-lasting physical benefits, too. Regular participation in athletic activities reduces the risk of potentially debilitating conditions like: heart disease, obesity, osteoporosis and diabetes. Cardiovascular diseases are emerging as one of the biggest dangers in developed countries and urban areas of developing countries, so it’s more important than ever to give children the tools to reduce their risk in that area. Kids who participate in sports are often a lot more aware of healthy food habits, which can last well into adulthood. Regular physical activity also lowers the chances of suffering from mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, which can have physiological roots.
Perhaps one of the most important benefits of playing sports is that children learn how to unwind productively, and to enjoy each other’s company with healthy competition. After all, playing, at the heart of it, is about having fun. If you don’t learn how to do that as a youngster, how far will you go before burning out? ..... Sarah