Youth sports carry tremendous but largely untapped potential, especially in their ability to form exceptional character traits in children as they mature into adulthood. Ideally, these positive qualities will stay with them throughout their lives, making them better workers, better spouses, better parents, better citizens, and better human beings overall.
Unfortunately, this understanding of sports as a means of character development is often overlooked – especially by egotistical parents and coaches – for the sake of more transient and superficial goals, such as winning athletic competitions at any cost. Winning is a wonderful thing, of course, but contrary to much popular opinion it should never be the sole or even the primary motive for becoming involved in athletics. This is especially true at the youth level.
In what follows I will briefly articulate just a few of the many possible benefits I have in mind. My reflection on the topic can be traced to my experience as a child who played sports for many years and now as a father whose children are playing. I’ve quietly observed – and not always quietly! – what makes for a great coach or parent, and on the other hand what makes for a lousy coach or parent.
The first and most obvious benefit to participating in sports is that it allows children to get much needed physical exercise. This is especially pertinent in this age where kids’ energies have been diverted to more sedentary activities, such as playing video games and the internet. Kids generally spend way less time exercising their bodies now than they did in previous eras, and a corresponding shift in dietary habits for the worse has resulted in increased levels of obesity and other physical ailments. So playing sports typically results in higher levels of physical fitness than they’d otherwise be.
Another positive function of youth sports, taken in its highest possibilities, is that it introduces children to the importance of setting goals and then working to achieve them. In other words, they cultivate a sense of self-discipline. The goal may be specific, like winning a future tournament, or something much more general, such as becoming a better player within a limited time frame (measured of course by actual competitive results).
A combination of both particular and vague goals is best, since the emotional impact of failing to achieve the first sort will be significantly mitigated by the more lasting satisfaction received through the knowledge that the child did their absolute best in the endeavor. Moreover, an additional positive feature of long-term goal setting is that it tends to lift the child’s attention away from a focus on the immediate satisfaction of bodily desires and towards more lasting and spiritually-elevated goals.`There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get after reaching a difficult goal which required you to make many short-term sacrifices. This elevated sense of accomplishment is something that should be encouraged but is instead being weakened a bit in our fast-paced, hyper-consumerist age of “instant gratification.”
Incidentally, this is the one area where coaches and parents tend to screw up the most: it’s emphatically NOT primarily about the results but much more about the effort and dedication the child put in to achieve their desired result. Many parents and coaches make it about themselves, unfortunately, and put extreme pressure on their children to live up to their (the parents) expectations.
These overbearing parents and coaches see the kids as a reflection of themselves, and while they’re proud of them when they win they’ll shame them when they lose for “embarrassing” themselves – and we all know that the embarrassment is usually found within the adult rather than the child. If a child gives their best effort leading up to, and during, an athletic competition, and still falls short of victory, and you berate them nonetheless, then you’re a jerk who has no business being involved in this important aspect of a child’s life.
The next benefit to youth sports is specific to team-oriented activities: learning to become a great teammate! This is another oft-overlooked character trait. What are some characteristics of an exceptional teammate? For one, seeing how your attitude and effort impacts the team. This sense of collective responsibility, in which your contribution is measured in both physical and emotional terms, is an invaluable lesson that can influence the way we understand our lives as interwoven into a larger social context, from work to family to community.
Furthermore, an outstanding teammate will take the blame when he or she doesn’t put forth full effort, which in turn may affect other members adversely. Even those less talented players can contribute something significant to the wellbeing of the team by, for instance, lifting up the spirits of their teammates after a bad play or poorly played game. Instead of berating them with, “Why didn’t you catch the ball you idiot!” we find an encouraging, “Don’t worry about it you’ll get the next one!” This positive influence on team and individual spirit applies to coaches and parents, too, of course.
A quick comment about the advantage of individual sports is in order since being a good teammate isn’t relevant in that context. The main thing about individual sports – and I know this well after having wrestled for many years – is that there’s no one to turn to or blame if things don’t go your way. So while the sense of collective responsibility may be lacking in this area, the pressure of not having anyone to fall back on for your effort and results is intense and ultimately beneficial. It may lead to a heightened sense of self-accountability, and this is yet another thing which may positively impact one’s life heading into adulthood.
Yet another great lesson children can learn through sporting activities has already been touched upon a couple times, and this would be the importance of learning to lose. This is obviously not an easy thing for many people to do, adults and less emotionally-developed children alike. But the fact remains that failure is an essential part of life, and every person who’s ever walked this planet has fallen short of their desired goals at some point in their life.
What matters most when dealing with failure is how we respond to it: Do we tell ourselves we’re failures who suck at everything after being subjected to some adversity? Or do we acknowledge our defeat and then vow to work harder and to come back even stronger than before? Again, the main thing to focus on here – whether as a coach, a parent, or a player – is the radically different mindsets involved in the responses to setbacks. This is also an area that’s frequently miscalculated by coaches and parents in positions of leadership of children, and therefore of their vital emotional, psychological, and even spiritual development.
And finally, these musing on the important role that youth sports can play in the lives of our children can be reduced to one essential thing: character development. With the exception of the physical improvement accruing to sporting activity – which applies equally regardless of other factors – each of the benefits listed here involves the inculcation of certain traits and habits of mind that influence the character of the developing child. Being able to set goals and strive to attain them, being an outstanding teammate, being accountable for one’s effort and results, and being able to lose with dignity while learning from the experience and vowing to come back stronger, all indicate exceptional character.
As with other seemingly mundane topics, the potential which youth sports harbor for things far transcending wins and losses on the field or in the arena. It’s not about winning, it’s about what type of human being you are. And this is revealed on the field or in the arena. Things like competing with honor and integrity, often within the context of a team, can shape the way we approach major life issues well past our playing days. This isn’t normally how things are interpreted within the (often pathetic) world of youth sports, unfortunately, but with these potentialities in mind we can become better leaders of our youth by giving them the tools to flourish in both mind and body. Seen from this standpoint, the issue becomes one of profound importance for our needs as both individuals and members of communities, of which we are but a part or a larger family or team.