I played a number of sports when I was younger. I played for my middle school basketball and baseball teams and I was the starting goalie for my high school floor hockey team. I'll be the first to admit that I was never the star. I could box out well enough to get my share of rebounds, but my shooting stroke and ball-handling skills left much to be desired. I could hit for average and I had good speed on the base paths but no consistent power. I had ups and downs as a goalie but made consistent progress as we moved forward. I was never the scoring leader, but I found ways to contribute to help the team win.
I didn't mind my role player status. I knew that my talents had limits and, to be honest, I simply wasn't driven to work hard enough to become a highlight-reel player. But I also knew that our team didn't need me to be the star; they needed me to be the goalie. My job was fairly simple: keep the puck out of the net. There were nuances, of course, such as blocking shooting angles, hugging the post and keeping my glove hand up, but the key part of preventing the other team from scoring had much less to do with physical athleticism and more to do with communication.
I had to tell my defenders when the pressure from the other team was coming and whether or not my vision was being screened. I had to make sure my teammates knew when I needed help and I needed to provide that last line of defense from our opponents' attackers. Goalies may have a reputation for being quirky and isolated, not unlike certain starting pitchers in baseball, but the avenue for reaching the team's objective remains the same: teammates need to talk to each other in order to accomplish a task.
It wasn't until I became an adult that I realized that effective communication skills are a critical piece of social development. The ability to formulate an idea and articulate it in such a way that people from varied backgrounds can understand it is essential, not just for achieving professional or academic success, but for simply being able to interact with people on a daily basis. Whether I am speaking with my wife, my two-year-old son or the families that I work with as a social worker in the mental health field, I have to find the right words to be able to express my thoughts to my audience so that they will be able to internalize the message.
My son has to learn to ask for things that he wants calmly and respectfully if he wants people to respond to him in a positive way, as opposed to pointing and demanding to be waited on. In addition, if he does not get what he wants, he needs to find a way to handle disappointment without crying and throwing his toys. Parents and children who are experiencing conflicts often need to modify the language that they use in order to get better behavioral results from each other. In both cases, I have to make sure I model the correct language and behavior to help the people I'm speaking with become prepared to make changes in themselves.
I am not arguing that playing sports will necessarily improve a child's communication skills. On the contrary, there are plenty of examples of professional athletes who have difficulty expressing themselves articulately. There is also a significant difference between explaining the implications of a mental health diagnosis to a concerned parent and shouting "Man on!" to tell a teammate to pay attention to an approaching opponent. On the other hand, sports do provide a mechanism for helping children to understand the need for effective communication.
Children need to learn that if they keep their teammates involved, the team is more likely to win. If everyone works in silos and only looks out for their own statistics, the team will falter.
Furthermore, children who play sports learn to express their feelings of disappointment when the team does lose, a vital skill for developing resiliency. Sports give children the opportunity to learn to work together with others toward a common goal and a framework for developing the skills they will need later in life to achieve those goals. Whether children are learning ways to support their teammates during a game or expressing an opinion during a debate, sports provide the medium for developing the ability to communicate their ideas clearly. The communication styles may be different depending on the sport or the level, but a child who learns to articulate their ideas effectively will end up winning, regardless of the competition or the opponent.
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