There are many reasons why sports are so valuable for our children to play, no matter what age those children may be. Of course, helping kids develop and maintain physical fitness is one extremely important reason why kids should play sports. Playing sports helps kids stay healthy. In an age of almost epidemic numbers of people suffering from diseases and physical ailments related to obesity or not being at their optimal weight, the more opportunities for kids to be healthy and fit, the better it is for all.
On top of the physical benefits, there are many other reasons why kids should play sports, probably too many to cover in a single blog post. We have all heard it many times now, but sports can teach kids so many valuable life lessons. As coaches, many of us focus on intentionally teaching those life lessons to the young people in our care. The booklet and presentation by the same name, Life Lessons for Athletes, by Bruce Brown, the director of Proactive Coaching, highlights 10 behavioral characteristics that we should be helping kids to learn, understand and develop, not only for their involvement in sports, but for all aspects of their lives. The 10 characteristics are:
- 1. Integrity
- 2. Teachable Spirit
- 3. Academic Responsibility
- 4. Confidence
- 5. Accountability/ Work Habits
- 6. Discipline
- 7. Mental Toughness
- 8. Pride/Humility
- 9. Leadership
- 10. Selflessness
While there are certainly more things that playing sports can teach young people, this list is a prime example of many of the qualities and characteristics we can help young people learn by being involved in sports.
However, there is an extremely important caveat to this. In order for us to make sure that sports are teaching young people these things, we must make sure that we are intentional and purposeful about teaching them to our student-athletes. So often we hear people say that sports teach character, but when we look at the games that kids (and adults) are playing, we do not see examples of great character -- and all too often we see the exact opposite. Just because a child runs around on a soccer field or a basketball court for two hours, it does not mean that s/he will learn how to be a better person or learn the value of working hard or any of the other elements on the list above. In fact, too often children are taught (whether intentionally or not) how not to behave. Oftentimes children learn how not to behave from the example of the people who should be teaching them the right way to behave -- coaches and parents. But when coaches (and parents) intentionally design lessons and practice plans that include various elements of character, sportsmanship and life lessons, and then go out and work on those things with their teams, children have a much better chance of learning many positive lessons from their involvement in sports.
So how can coaches and athletic administrators do this? It's quite simple -- incorporate into your practice plans daily or weekly themes and lessons that you will teach. This can be done for 10 or 15 minutes prior to or after practice, where you take a theme of the week (for instance, something on the list above) and you read a paragraph or two about that theme and then discuss it. It is helpful to have some quotes by famous (and not-so-famous) people about that quality and discuss those quotes with players. Some of my favorite moments as a coach have been those 15-minute lessons I have had with my teams, to hear how certain ideas or quotes have affected certain players, and to hear the discussions that were then spawned because of it. This can be a very powerful part of any team's season.
However, it doesn't end there. If we take 15 minutes for four days in a week to discuss sportsmanship or poise, and then in the game on Friday night, I act like a raving lunatic at every call I disagree with, or I run the score up on a much weaker opponent, the 15-minute lessons were worthless -- and possibly even damaging. We must go out and live by the very principles and lessons we are trying to espouse. During the week when we cover sportsmanship, for instance, I will set up moments in practice (that the players don't know are coming) that will test our sportsmanship. I have purposefully made bad calls in scrimmages to see how we handle ourselves and then stopped the scrimmage to address the right or wrong response that we saw.
Sports can be extremely valuable in the growth and development of young people. However, it is up to us as the adults to do everything we can to make sure that what we want them to learn and enjoy from the experience are the very things that we are teaching them.
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