Until very recently, when asked what I wanted to be “when I grew up,” I would answer very simply and very confidently, “A professional soccer player.” Soccer has defined who I am and what I wanted to do with my life since I was four-years-old. Little did I know, even when the dream of playing professionally ended, and the runner-up dream of playing collegiately had been accomplished, the effects of playing soccer and staying active throughout my childhood and young adulthood would be long-lasting. Most children engage in sports to simply have fun, but the benefits of this participation go far beyond the love of the game.
The physical health benefits of participating in sports are abundant and almost go without saying. Physical activity in adolescence improves strength and endurance, helps build healthy bones and muscles, helps control weight, and likely has more far-reaching positive physical effects. Especially considering the growing obesity rates in our nation, it is time to encourage children to take part in physical activity as opposed to sitting on the couch playing videogames and eating potato chips.
The psychological health benefits to exercise are also numerous. I can only speak from my experience and my observance of teammates throughout the years, but it is apparent that participating in sports reduces anxiety and stress, and certainly increases self-esteem in young boys and girls. I was pretty insecure growing up (aren’t we all?), but playing soccer was always my outlet for relieving stress. Excelling in a particular practice, or scoring the winning goal, seemed to give me a little bit of confidence in myself that I would not have had otherwise. My coach complimenting me or a teammate cheering for me seemed to outweigh, or at least combat, any insecurities I felt about myself.
For a particularly shy child, sports participation can be the perfect avenue to make friends and learn social skills. Immediately upon signing up for a sports team or league, a child is instantly granted a same-gender/same-age pool of students to meet friends. Further, a child can learn leadership and responsibility skills by being a captain of a team or by simply leading warm-ups for a particular practice.
Children learn discipline through participation in sports as well. The rules of each sport are specific and a child must learn them thoroughly in order to succeed. This idea of following rules can (and likely does) translate to following rules in a civil society and in school. Also, mandatory practices and games instill the importance of scheduling and commitment in a child’s mind. Growing up, I knew that I had practices on certain days of the week and games every Saturday. That meant I could not schedule anything else on those days. This time management becomes increasingly important as a child grows up and schedules become busier. Also, I always knew that I had to get my homework done before practice or else I would be up until extremely late finishing it after practice. I could not afford to procrastinate like so many of my friends because I literally did not have enough time to postpone assignments like they did.
Probably the most apparent quality in me that I believe I learned through playing soccer is my competitive nature. Although my friends and family likely find it obsessive, I love competing and I love winning. It might seem excessive when I refuse to lose at a simple game of dominos, but I truly believe that it translates to the academic and professional world. I constantly strive for the top grade and the best job. Of course, it is important to understand that you might not always be the best at something (which sports can also aid a child in learning), but the importance of striving to excel cannot be overstated.
Children can also learn a significant amount from their relationships with their coaches. They might not have a necessarily positive relationship with their parents or their teachers and so deference to another adult can be beneficial in a child’s life. Coaches lead the child in doing something they love, which might lead to a level of respect and admiration that the child needs. I know that my experience with multiple coaches (of course, in addition to my relationships with my parents and teachers) over the years taught me the proper way to speak to adults, and I am hoping it will translate to the relationships I will have with future employers.
Many of these positive outcomes of participation in sports seem obvious, I am sure. That makes it even more apparent to me that we must require and foster sports participation in juvenile detention, foster care, and adoption facilities. That conclusion will be addressed in detail in my next blog post, which will outline my upcoming policy statement pertaining to this topic.