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10 Important Reasons Why Children Should Take up Sports

When children are engaged in activities which align with their particular interests, their psychosocial development is enhanced. They not only learn a variety of useful skills, they learn to express themselves, go on a journey of self-discovery, and grow into adulthood with an authentic set of characteristics and values.

Here, however, we will focus on those important activities which impact children’s health and body development – participation in sports.

According to the latest Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance in the United States (2016), 14% of children reported not having any kind of physical activity at least once a week prior to taking part in the survey, while 27% of the children reported having been physically active every day of the week for at least 60 minutes per day. Also, 14% of the children were found to be obese, while 16% were overweight [1]. The results of this study clearly suggest that taking up sports as an extracurricular activity is an especially good idea.

In this article, we’ll take a look not only at the obvious benefits of sports on physical health, but also at a much-neglected topic – how sports help in developing children’s personalities and positive forms of behavior.

Psychosocial development through sports

  1. Companionship and friendship

Being on a sports team provides children with a new social circle outside of school, an opportunity for making new friendships, some of which may last a lifetime. By training with other kids, children participate in different interactions from those they have in school. Also, their communication and interactions are far richer than the ones they get by simply texting via social media. They win together, they compete among themselves, they lose and deal with defeat together. Being involved in a sport teaches valuable lessons in teamwork, such as putting yourself in second place for the benefit of the whole team. All of this gives children a new sense of togetherness and belonging.

  1. Learning how to lose

Learning to accept and cope with defeat is an important lesson in life. The nature of sports is such that there is always a winner and a loser, and the experience of being one or the other is a valuable one. It’s inevitable that there will be multiple occasions when children come out of the game defeated in practice or in a match, but it’s important to help them realize that losing is nothing to be ashamed of. We all have a friend who’s a sore loser, and who can sometimes ruin all the fun of the game. By learning to control and understand their emotions after losing, children can build resilience that can aid them in life. After all, life brings many obstacles and learning to be dignified in defeat and to stand up when you’re down are lessons sports can teach us early on.

  1. Learning discipline and respect for authority

Specific rules may apply on the sports field, set by new authority figures like coaches or other older individuals (e.g. referees). Following the rules requires discipline and respect for the decisions made by more experienced and skilled others. Obeying rules and orders is the basis for good interaction and cooperation in any sport, and being disciplined in training sessions is a necessary part of succeeding. Constructive criticism is a big part of sports and the main ingredient for developing the necessary skills. Children learn to respect those in authority, even when they don’t agree with them, as they see their skills developing and improving. This way sports introduce a new authority figure for children, besides parents and teachers, who can help them in their healthy development.

  1. Developing persistence, dedication, and patience

Through competition, children can develop the motivation to improve and avoid defeat. By working hard at every practice and staying focused on their goal, children build persistence and learn the importance of patience, and in the end, realize that hard work pays off. This translates to life in general – setting out to accomplish something requires dedication and persistence over a long period of time. There is some evidence that long-term commitment to sports has a positive impact on children’s behavior in the classroom [2]. They tend to apply the same principles of dedication, persistence, and patience they learn through sports to the school environment. Everything mentioned above, such as interactions with peers, dedication to training, and practicing teamwork translates into the classroom. In this sense, sports are able to advance the educational aspirations of children and create pathways to educational success [3].

  1. Developing self-esteem

Participation in sports can be beneficial for children’s self-esteem and confidence even though they might not necessarily be good at it. Words of praise from coaches for successfully finishing a workout or winning a game, high-fives from teammates after a great team action, or just having something of their own that helps them build their own identity (“I’m a tennis player”) – are all ways of building trust in their own abilities and developing a feeling of confidence. On the other hand, it is important for children to focus on how much they enjoy playing a particular sport, and not whether they’ll win or lose a game. If they become overly competitive and their self-esteem only depends on winning, they risk losing self-confidence. Because of this, parents have an important role in encouraging children to play sports for fun and enjoyment, and not necessarily for winning every single game. After all, when are you going to have fun if not during your childhood? Of course,  physical activity also benefits the body and overall health, so it’s not surprising that one study found that girls who played sports reported greater acceptance of their body image [4].

  1. Sports as a mood-enhancer

Sports are generally a positive emotional experience, and being physically active and engaging in sports practices leaves children feeling better afterward. This mood-enhancement effect of sports is not only short-term. Doing something they love and enjoy regularly will provide children with more energy and a lasting feeling of wellbeing. Participating in sports a couple of days a week leads to happier children each day of the week. There’s even research that suggests that people who are not active are more depressed than those who maintain an exercise regimen [5]. Sports can not only be a protective factor for certain clinical mental health disorders, such as depression, but also guard against a range of risky behaviors prevalent in adolescence, such as the use of tobacco or illegal substances [4]

Health benefits

  1. Body composition and weight

Research has shown that children who engage in more vigorous physical activity have more muscle and less body fat. If we bear in mind that by having more lean mass, the organism burns more calories, it’s not surprising that participating in a physical activity and sports tends to reduce the risk of being overweight [4].

  1. Building a healthy heart

Lowering body fat by playing sports or engaging in a regular physical activity also means taking care of the heart, and lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. One study showed that high school students who took up a sport outside of school had significantly better cardiovascular fitness than children who participated solely in PE [4, 6]. On the other hand, it’s important to bear in mind that following good eating habits is also crucial for maintaining a healthy heart and a fit body.

  1. Strengthening the bones

Playing sports can have a positive impact on bone health as well. Engaging in a vigorous physical activity over a sustained period of time can improve bone mineral density, especially among girls [4, 6].

  1. Building a healthy adult

Finally, physically active children usually grow up to be physically active adults. We have seen that sports represent an excellent way of preventing several chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity, osteoporosis, etc., so getting involved in sports in childhood is a key element in developing and maintaining good health and promoting longevity..

 

The role of the parent…

– If you’re having trouble encouraging your children to take up sports, you should set an example by doing some workouts at home, or becoming more physically active in some other way. Also, try raising their interest by exploring and playing some sport together, such as tennis or baseball, or simply throwing a frisbee around.

– Try not to push your children towards a sport you like, but they don’t show a particular interest in.

– If your children don’t want you to attend their match, try to talk to them and see why. They might be afraid of not performing well, or they lack self-confidence, so try to be supportive.

– Make sure your children don’t neglect other commitments (e.g. schoolwork). It is possible for your children to become too invested in a sport or some other hobby. If you are not sure how many extracurricular activities they should take up, we have an article that can be helpful.

by Darko Stojilović

References:

[1] Kann, L. (2016). Youth risk behavior surveillance — United States, 2015. MMWR. Surveillance Summaries, 65, 6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[2] Singh, A., Uijtdewilligen, L., Twisk, J. W., Van Mechelen, W., & Chinapaw, M. J. (2012). Physical activity and performance at school: a systematic review of the literature including a methodological quality assessment. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 166(1), 49-55.

[3] Rosewater, A. (2009). Learning to play and playing to learn: Organized sports and educational outcome. The Education Digest, 75(1), 50.

[4] Rosewater, A. (2010). Organized sports and the health of children and youth. Prepared for Team Up for Youth.

[5] Blumenthal, J. A., Babyak, M. A., Doraiswamy, P. M., Watkins, L., Hoffman, B. M., Barbour, K. A., … & Hinderliter, A. (2007). Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69(7), 587.

[6] Warburton, D. E., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian medical association journal, 174(6), 801-809.

 

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Extracurricular activities – how (many) to choose?

The Romans had a saying – Mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body. And they practiced what they preached. In ancient Rome and Greece, it was expected that students not only give their all in philosophy and mathematics; they were similarly required to practice gymnastics – what we would now call “athletics”.

Nowadays, we tend to have a different view of what’s necessary for an adolescent. We often expect them to figure out their own particular interest or vocation and to channel their energies exclusively into that one thing.

However, attitudes are changing.  We’re beginning to acknowledge that adolescents need more than one narrow focus and we’re encouraging their participation in extracurricular activities. And that’s a good start towards fostering a multi-oriented young person with a wide variety of interests and skills.

Unfortunately, society dictates a lot of the choices adolescents have. There are certain labels that, once established, can be very difficult to shake off. We have “jocks”, “nerds”, “cheerleaders”, etc., – and their peers (and adults alike) tend to see them as one-dimensional. For that reason, “nerds” will go for chess club rather than trying out for the football team where they might not be easily accepted. But why shouldn’t a young person who has both the interest and skills go out for both – as unlikely a combination as that might appear to some? It’s up to us to encourage them and teach them that it’s okay to do well academically and be a good athlete at the same time.  Not only is it okay, it’s very good for both their mental and physical well-being!

So, how do we recognize which extracurricular activity is right for a particular adolescent?

Here’s some questions whose answers might offer a solution to that dilemma

1. What is your child interested in?

Even though adolescents spend a lot of time with their friends, parents have obviously been with them far longer. They’ve watched them grow up, playing with the same toys for hours and begging for that soccer ball until they finally got it. You are clearly the ones who can best try to answer this question – what is it that always interested my child? Sometimes, girls will be interested in new technologies and dream of becoming a programmer or a game developer. But once they enter high school, they’re told that it’s a man’s field and they might be encouraged to go for soft skills instead. The same goes for boys and, say, dancing. But if these kids had spent years practicing different programming languages or dancing in their room, you should talk to them about it and try to convince them to pursue their passion by joining a computer club or a dance troupe. Just make sure to be as objective as possible. Try to remember those early occasions when your child asked you for something, not when you bought it for them without asking first. It’s important (and not always easy) to distinguish between your child’s and your own interests, as parents often see themselves reflected in their children.

Extracurricular activities shouldn’t be there to fill in their free time with just anything – they should offer children a unique chance to develop, to find something they are passionate about and, who knows, maybe make a living out of one day. Adolescents who work at something they’re interested in and motivated by tend to have more success in that field than their peers, as well as being happier and more fulfilled. [2]

2. What are they good at?

Another important thing to consider is not only what children like, but also what they seem to be talented at. If they choose to engage in activities they already have a gift for, it will significantly elevate their fragile self-esteem. [1] Adolescence is a time when it’s important to develop a sense of self and confidence, and for most, years will pass before they master this. So being very good at something and having the opportunity to prove oneself might be extremely beneficial. That being said, the chosen activity should still be sufficiently challenging – they might not enjoy “easy wins”.

Now, if what interests them and what they are good at are one and the same, they’ll have the perfect extracurricular activity. But what if it’s not one and the same? What comes first? Should they choose what interests them or what they’re good at?

Well, there’s no reason to choose. There’s nothing wrong with participating in several organized activities in one’s free time.  And when they’re involved in more than one extracurricular activity, adolescents tend to like school more and do better academically than their peers who only follow one. [3]

3. Do they enjoy socializing or are they shy?

So far I’ve been arguing that extracurricular activities should be tailored to the child’s interests, but there’s definitely more to it. Different activities offer different possibilities, and if they choose the right one, children can develop all sorts of skills. For example, if an adolescent prefers doing things alone – not because they are shy, but because it’s simply their preference – joining a math club or chess club may be the right thing to do. However, if you’ve noticed that your child wants to socialize but feels too shy to attempt it, a team sport could help them enormously. Of course, it might be difficult in the beginning. Trying new things usually is. But as time goes by, spending hours of their free time in a structured environment with their peers learning responsibilities and team spirit will start reaping benefits, and you’ll soon see them turn from shy to sociable.

4. What are their priorities?

It’s good to encourage adolescents to try many different things. But occasionally, you’ll find children who’ve been obsessed with a only one activity since their earliest years. They may see themselves only as dancers, or actors, or game developers, and they focus all their efforts on becoming better at that one particular thing. In that case, it’s okay to remind them there are other activities out there, not just drama or computer club. It is up to them to decide whether they’ll give them a try or not, though. If they identify strongly with the activity they’ve chosen, they might see other activities as a waste of the time they’d rather be spending practicing what they enjoy most. [3] However, bear in mind there are certain caveats here. If their action-of-choice is a physical thing, such as football or dancing, go for it! But if the activity they’ve chosen is sedentary, it might affect their physical and mental health negatively. Since most school activities are done while sitting down, going to a computer club just to sit some more could carry certain health risks. This is why it would be good to encourage them to practice a variety of extracurricular activities. [4]

Mixing it is best!

Adolescents need to be stimulated both in terms of learning and physical development. Their brains and bodies alike are undergoing a lot of changes that are sometimes confusing and not easily understood. It definitely helps if they can hold on to something throughout these changes.

School tends to focus on academic achievement, be it through math, languages, or science. That’s far from a bad thing, but it’s not enough for a developing young person. And even though they have the opportunity to practice PE, its benefits are easily diminished by the overwhelming amount of time spent sitting, studying, and doing homework. So, if your child wants to only do things related to athletics outside of their school time, it’s okay. School will deal with their knowledge and learning habits, and athletics will help with that, too.  Children who engage in physical activities such as sports or dance have shown greater liking for school and enhanced learning ability, probably because physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, making it more active and alert, which positively influences their attention. [4]

What are their choices?

Up until now, I’ve been separating extracurricular activities only into academic and athletic, but there are at least two more types of activities a child might want to try – performance arts and prosocial activities. If they are interested in performance arts, they might want to join a school band or a drama club, for example. The children who will go for these are usually those who enjoy being in front of the audience, but shy children can benefit from participation as well; performing is good practice for the future, as they may one day be required to give a speech or hold a presentation. And there’s the added benefit of the built-in socializing factor that goes along with it. Just keep in mind that it’s up to you to encourage your child to try something, but in the end it’s up to them whether they feel comfortable enough to do it.

Finally, we have the so-called prosocial activities –  the one most commonly practiced being volunteering. This one is very important, as doing something for the community helps an adolescent feel more a part of things and gives them a sense of belonging. Not only that, they become part of a social network of both peers and adults who could potentially give them useful advice and teach them new things.

The important thing is that all of these activities have a lot of pros – they all lead to better grades and a higher college attendance, while prosocial activities and performing arts also help prevent potentially risky behaviors. Now, I’ve mentioned previously something along the lines of “the more, the merrier”- but there’s a limit to that. So where do we draw the line? At what point do we tell them they’re putting too much pressure on themselves? How many activities are enough and how many are too much?

Magical number 5-19

Different cultures have different expectations for their children. In Europe, students are expected to have high grades, while volunteering is looked upon as a plus. Anything above that is a bonus, but not necessary for success. In many countries in Asia, they have a different outlook. From a very early age, children take on piano lessons, English classes, swimming, baseball, art… And that’s just for one child. Children who have too many responsibilities and too little free time growing up tend to be very stressed-out, not only as adolescents but also later in life. However, children who have few commitments and challenges during their school days also tend to be under a lot of stress once they get a job and responsibilities, since they’re not used to the pressure and not well equipped to deal with it. So what’s the solution? Moderation. Children whose parents’ expectations for them are moderate tend to go on to lead more fulfilling, healthy lives while still managing to succeed in their chosen area.

But what exactly constitutes “moderate”?

It’s been shown that adolescents who spend between five and nineteen hours a week doing extracurricular activities are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Anything above nineteen hours has either no effect or a negative one, as it leads to adolescents being under too much pressure and resorting to risky behaviors to try to find a way out of anxiety or depression. [3]

So, what can we conclude?

Encourage your children to try different things. If they are shy, a performance art might help them. If they feel like what they love doesn’t fit their perceived role in society, urge them not to give up on their passion. If they are only interested in academic or prosocial activities, help them fit a physical activity into their schedule. If you’re not sure what they are interested in, feel free to recommend them one you’re interested in or have experience with, as long as you don’t push it on them. It will give you some extra time with your teen that they might otherwise prefer to spend with their peers.

And last, but not least – don’t let them over-commit themselves. They still need some unstructured, free time with their peers or alone.

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. Eccles, J.S. (2003).  Extracurricular activities and adolescent development. Journal of social issues, Vol. 59, No. 4, 2003, pp. 856-889
  2. Holland, A. & Andre, T. (1987). The Effects of Participation in Extracurricular Activities in Secondary School: What Is Known, What Needs To Be Known
  3. Farb, A.F., Matjasko, J. (2005). The role of school-based extracurricular activities in adolescent development. Review of educational research.
  4. Biddle, S. J. H., & Asare, M. (2011). Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: A review of reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45, 886-895 doi:10.1136/bjsports-2011-090185

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