Playing sports can provide invaluable human development, and for many of us, sports provided some of the best experiences enjoyed in life. Pushing minds and bodies to the limit, working together on a team, and experiencing accomplishments on the field are just three quick examples of things athletes do on a daily basis. In fact, it can be argued that sports provide the best opportunities to develop as successful people, and it is from that perspective that I would like to build from by discussing the most important takeaway from the sport experience.
Include more than sport achievements when evaluating the sport experience
While most parents and coaches use sport success as a means of evaluating whether a kid is benefiting from playing sports, positive growth may be missed if accomplishments and success are the only qualities being noted. For example, kids who earn college athletic scholarships are generally seen as success stories, while kids who don’t go very far with sports may be viewed as having wasted their time. But is it really true that only the good kids benefit from sports, while less talented kids are getting nothing from the sport experience?
When I think about kids and what they get from playing sports, success on the field might be one of the last things I use when determining the positive impact sports are having on their lives. What I mean by this is if we think kids who don’t earn college scholarships have spent their time foolishly playing sports, then I think we are looking at the sport experience in a very short-sighted and unfair way.
Skills to be used for LIFE success
The number of athletic transferable skills kids learn and develop through sports are literally countless. Learning how to manage your time, develop motivation, work toward individual and team goals, and bounce back from adversity are just a few quick examples of skills that all young athletes learn — including the kids who don’t regularly see the field. When you think about the skills needed for success in the classroom and future career opportunities, the very same sport skills can (and often are) at the heart of the discussion.
Why athletic transferable skills get overlooked
Athletic transferable skills not only help with tangible life issues and problems, but they also instill confidence in kids, and help them develop a strong belief that they can be successful with anything they put their mind to in life. Unfortunatley, in far too many instances, kids either:
A) compartmentalize their sport skills to the field and don’t parlay them to other life experiences, and/or B) falsely assume that other kids not involved in sports have learned the same skills, thereby rendering sport skills as useless beyond the field.
One example to help prove this point is an otherwise cool and confident athlete on the field who struggles with test anxiety in the classroom. Here the athlete has learned cognitive-behavioral skills like deep breathing, imagery, and positive self-talk to stay calm and sink free throws when the game is on the line, but hasn’t been directly taught how to use those very same skills before sitting down to take a test. Of course, the mental skills I mention won’t compensate for not studying, but in many cases kids who struggle with test anxiety actually know the material, but “freeze up” when it comes to selecting the best answers on a test.
What parents and coaches need to do
If we really want kids to take away as much as they can from playing sports, then I believe we must be more direct, encouraging, and emphatic about the skills they are learning on the field, and how they can be applied to every future endeavor they experience in life. A few tips for sports parents and coaches are provided below to help:
- Take inventory of skills learned in sports. Kids learn countless skills in sports, from communicating with coaches and teammates to playing with integrity. Create your own list of some of the more important skills, and then emphasize their importance with the kids you parent or coach.
- Steer kids away from “all or nothing” thinking. Some kids erroneously think that if they aren’t a star on the team, then their entire sport experience is compromised, and maybe even worthless. Do your part to teach kids that even reserve players have to develop important skills, including perseverance and mental toughness.
- Teach kids how to use sport skills in life. Not only is it important to help kids identify important sport/life skills, but it is equally important to help kids apply what they learn on the field to various situations in life. For example, the same mindset used to get through tough practices can be applied to working through long study sessions — kids don’t always see this connection immediately, but with your help they will in no time.
Very few kids will play college sports (only around 5% of high school kids, in fact), and even fewer will move on from college to play professional sports (only about 2%). On the other hand, every athlete learns important life skills through sports, and every athlete can use those skills to become successful in practically everything they do beyond sports. It is for these reasons that sports parents and coaches take time out to work with kids in holistic ways in order to truly maximize the athletic experience.