Helping Kids Learn Important Problem-Solving Life Skills through Sports

There are countless life skills and lessons kids learn through sports, from learning the importance of discipline and hard work to figuring ways to galvanize human resiliency for tough losses on the field.  One particular life skill, problem-solving, ranks right up there at the top of the list as kids are constantly prompted to figure things out in sports.  Some of the problems young athletes experience include fixing performance slumps, helping improve team chemistry, dealing with playing time issues, and learning ways to effectively balance their schedules between school and sports.

The importance of life skills

Athletes of all ages and sport types are constantly learning life skills in sports, even if they don’t immediately see this connection.  In fact, we even coined the term “Athletic Transferable Skills” to help illustrate that there is a bridge from sports to the classroom, future careers, and just about every aspect of life where kids can apply the skills they learned in sports for other life challenges.  Setting goals, learning how to self-motivate, being a team player, and mastering time management are just a few examples of the importance and applicability of Athletic Transferable Skills.

Problem-solving is a big transferable skill that kids can learn through sports and then apply to countless life challenges they experience on a daily basis.  The issue, similar to all Athletic Transferable Skills, is that kids use problem solving so regularly in sports that they often devalue, minimize, or falsely assume that the skill of problem solving isn’t of much value outside of sports.  Sadly, when kids (and parents) think this way, golden opportunities are missed for kids to improve in other life areas because of the experiences they have had in sports.

Problem-solving issues in sports

Sports provide for countless problems to solve, with decisions generally falling in to two categories: systematic and spontaneous.  Young athletes make systematic decisions when they have some time to work with and can give deeper thought to situations and problems, like the effort needed to decide whether to play on a travel sports team, or to try and play 2 sports during the same sports season.  When figuring out these questions, kids learn how to brainstorm multiple solutions, how to weigh options, how to seek mentoring and support, and how to commit to a final decision.  These kinds of problem-solving skills provide for countless applications beyond sports, and prepare kids with a skill-set they will use for the rest of their lives.

Spontaneous decisions are also very important, and include situations where there isn’t much time to think and process.  Examples of spontaneous decision-making include adjusting to in-game challenges, quickly bouncing back from adversity, pulling teammates together during tough stretches, and working through bumps and bruises that occur during a game.  With spontaneous decisions, there isn’t much time to think through problems, prompting kids to quickly find solutions and implement their ideas almost immediately.

The need for problem-solving skills today

There has been a major paradigm shift in the United States over the last 15-20 years where more kids than ever are being diagnosed with various forms of mental illness.  To the extent that more kids are actually “mentally ill” is debatable, but as the DSM (guide used for diagnosing mental illness) expands its scope, increasingly more kids are being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and of course, ADHD.  After kids are diagnosed with a mental illness, they receive the label of their diagnosis, as well as a potentially dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy of falsely assuming they are inadequate, lacking, unable, or limited in their ability to succeed because of their mental illness.  Many kids are placed on psychotropic drugs after receiving their diagnosis, further limiting their belief that they really do have the skills needed for life happiness, productivity, and success.

Now, more than ever, we need to empower kids — all kids — that the life skills they are learning in sports are invaluable toward their future life success.   Rather than allowing kids to succumb to self-fulfilling prophecies of inadequacy because of their mental illness label and drug regimen, we should instead work to build kids up by starting conversations around Athletic Transferable Skills, especially problem-solving skills.  As kids solve more problems, they gain more self-confidence, and in turn see themselves as successful people, not weak kids who lack life skills.

Problem-solving steps

If you are a sports parent or youth sports coach, help kids develop their problem-solving skills by reviewing the following basic problem-solving steps:

  1. Properly frame the problem.  Help kids accurately examine the specific problem(s), while disregarding other factors that don’t weigh in to the final outcome.
  2. Understand what is controllable.  Kids can learn about the factors they control (i.e. preparing for games), while letting go of the things they don’t control (i.e. it makes no sense to get worked up about an official working the game since kids can’t control this decision).
  3. Examine pros/cons of decision.  Kids can develop the skills necessary to objectively weigh options so that they understand what things can and can’t happen when they make their final decision.
  4. Initiating action.  At the end of every decision some sort of action usually occurs, and kids can learn how to implement decisions that are based in integrity, sportsmanship, and fairness.
  5. Measure results.  As decisions are made, it’s important for kids to determine how they will evaluate the success of what they decided.

Final thoughts

Kids more than ever before need to feel confident and empowered by what they can achieve in life rather than being told they have a “mental illness” and need to be medicated by dangerous psychotropic drugs in order to succeed.  One way to help kids gain the confidence needed for life success is to help them identify Athletic Transferable Skills, especially problem-solving skills.  Sit down with your child and talk about all the skills that can be learned in sports, and help him or her apply those skills to academics, social activities, future careers, and all areas of life.

What do you think are the most valuable life skills kids can learn through sports?  In what ways can adults (parents & coaches) help kids identify and use these skills?

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